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In the Beginning was the Worm – Andrew Brown *****

Although it’s not a biography, people are central to Andrew Brown’s delightful study of the lengthy struggle to sequence the genome of a small, common-or-garden worm. Not only do you get a feel for the science involved in generating the first ever complete genome sequencing by Sydney Brenner, Bob Horvitz and John Sulston, but also for the realities of modern scientific work – down to the remarkably simple proposal that won Brenner et al a grant that would eventually lead to the Nobel prize.
The nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans isn’t much to look at, though Brown assures us that it is beautiful in the right light (and through the right microscope – it is only half a millimetre long), but proved the ideal subject for this task. The job wasn’t just about understanding the genetic mechanism, but required a total physical map of the worm and how its ‘circuits’ were wired. For this it provided the ideal balance of simplicity but with enough to it to make it worth investigating.
Any faults? He does have a tendency to repeat small blocks of text (one quote three times), and though he’s great at describing what happened and the people, it’s not the best book to get an understanding of what DNA sequencing really is – but these are quibbles.
The book works so well because the author isn’t afraid to uncover the sometimes rather unpleasant human traits that seem to accompany great achievement is science as much as any other field. You might not love Brown’s subjects as you get to know them (that’s both the worms and the scientists), but you can hardly fail to be fascinated by them.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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