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Genetic Can of Worms

By Sean Henahan, Access Excellence

c. elegansWashington, DC (12/11/98)- Researchers expect big things from the little worm C.elegans, now that the genome has been sequenced completely. While the genomes of yeast and bacteria have been sequenced, this is the first time a complete animal genome has been mapped.

Genome researchers in St. Louis, MO. and Cambridge, England worked together for eight years to elucidate the genetic blueprint for the lowly worm, a longtime favorite of geneticists. The instruction set for building the one millimeter round worm Caenorhabditis elegans is contained in 97 million-base pairs packed inside six chromosomes. Analysis of the genome found 19,099 protein-coding genes along with another 800 genes that appear to have other functions. This itself comes as a surprise, since classical genetics predicted there would be several times fewer genes.

"This is a tremendously gratifying moment and more of a beginning than an end. We have provided biologists with a powerful new tool to experiment with and learn how genomes function. We'll be able to ask-and answer-questions we could never even think about before," said Robert Waterston, leader of the St. Louis group.

Previous analyses of partial and complete genomes of various organisms has shown a remarkable conservation of genes across species. A new comparison of the genome of the S. cerevisiae yeast with that of the worm showed that 40 percent of the yeast and 20 percent of the worm sequences code for highly conserved proteins that carry out biological processes common to both microorganisms, including DNA and RNA metabolism and protein folding, trafficking and degradation. This finding give insight into the long-term process of evolution, suggesting that the genes were present and their functions were already established in the common ancestor of fungi and animals.

"This study represents an important advance. It shows that we can learn the function of worm genes from the yeast, and vice versa, which makes it likely that we can also learn the function of conserved human genes from either of these organisms," said David Botstein, PhD, Stanford W. Ascherman professor of genetics at Stanford University School of Medicine and senior author of the study. "

While C. elegans itself is happy to live in the dirt eating bacteria, it is related to several worms that parasitize human intestines. The knowledge gained from mapping the C. elegans genome could also lead to new ways of preventing and treating the diseases caused by these worms. Researchers might be able to use C. elegans to develop drugs that target unique nematode genes, creating new strategies for controlling parasites.

The current genome research was characterized by a philosophy of sharing information freely. Researchers from around the world were able to access and contribute to the C.elegans genome database over the Internet.

"The commitment of these groups to make their sequence data available to the research community right from the start is admirable. It typifies the spirit of the Human Genome Project and is exactly how we plan to operate our sequencing program on the human genome and other model organisms," said Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute.

The research appears in the December 11, 1998 issue of the journal Science.

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