10th December 1998

The first sequence of an animal genome is essentially complete

Funded by the Medical Research Council and America's National Institutes of Health, the Sanger Centre and the Genome Sequencing Centre at St Louis have completed a fifteen year project to sequence the complete genome of the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans.

Containing less than a thousand cells and 1mm in length, C.elegans seems very different from us but is actually built using remarkably similar principles. Like us it develops from embryo to adult, has a gut, nerves, muscles, skin, and around 40 per cent of its genes are closely related to ours.

By comparing worm and human sequence, it is possible to identify the related genes, and can then use the worm to examine their function. From these studies conclusions can be drawn about genetic causes of disease and disorders.

This completed gene sequence gives scientists and health practitioners world-wide valuable information to aid the study of the human body in health as well as in illness and may for example lead to new treatments for disease.

Introducing the press conference at the Royal Society, Professor George Radda, MRC Chief Executive said:

"This is an exciting day for British science. The first complete genomic sequence of a complex organism - an animal, with which the human body can be compared, promises to open a new chapter in the understanding of human health and disease."

Lord Sainsbury, Minister for Science said:

"The completion of this project is a terrific scientific achievement. Not only is it an example of international partnership and co-operation with strong British involvement, but a world scientific first - the first multicellular animal to be completely sequenced. This research will ultimately contribute towards interpretation of other genomes, including the human, and help to ensure that we revolutionise healthcare."


The MRC total spend on this project has been some £16m pounds over 15 years. Similar sums have been committed to the project by the National Institutes of Health in the USA. The US team was led by Dr Bob Waterston at Washington University School of Medicine, St Louis.

Dr John Sulston is Director of the Sanger Centre a world leading genome research centre based at the Wellcome Trust Genome Campus in Cambridgeshire. The Sanger Centre is the largest contributor to the Human Genome Project. It aims to complete the sequence of one-third of the human genome by 2003. The Centre is also sequencing a number of pathogens. The genome for tuberculosis was completed last December.

A proposal to investigate the genetics of the nematode worm on a large scale was first made by Sydney Brenner at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in 1963 and Dr John Sulston was part of his original research team. The C.elegans genome project remained there until 1993; subsequently, the Sanger Centre at Hinxton was developed specifically to house this and other large scale genome projects. A team at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology led by Dr Jonathan Hodgkin continues to work on the biology of C. elegans.

The C. elegans papers appear in a special edition of Science, published 11th December 1998

The above is taken from the Medical Research Council Press Release. For more information please call the MRC Press Office on 0171 637 6011

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