In the Beginning Was the Worm

Finding the Secrets of Life in a Tiny Hermaphrodite

Andrew Brown

Columbia University Press

In the Beginning Was the Worm

Google Preview

Pub Date: June 2005

ISBN: 9780231131476

248 Pages

Format: Paperback

List Price: $34.00

Pub Date: October 2003

ISBN: 9780231131469

248 Pages

Format: Hardcover

List Price: $95.00

In the Beginning Was the Worm

Finding the Secrets of Life in a Tiny Hermaphrodite

Andrew Brown

Columbia University Press

This is the story of how three men won the Nobel Prize for their research on the humble nematode worm C. elegans; how their extraordinary discovery led to the sequencing of the human genome; how a global multibillion-dollar industry was born; and how the mysteries of life were revealed in a tiny, brainless worm.

In 1998 the nematode worm—perhaps the most intensively studied animal on earth—was the first multicellular organism ever to have its genome sequenced and its DNA mapped and read. "When we understand the worm, we will understand life," predicted John Sulston, one of the three Nobel laureates, and his prediction proved astonishingly accurate. Four years later, the research that led to this extraordinary event garnered three scientists a Nobel Prize. Along with Robert Horvitz and Sydney Brenner, Sulston discovered the phenomenon of programmed cell death in the worm, an essential concept that explains how biological development occurs in animal life and, as Horvitz later showed, how it occurs in human life. C. elegans is about as simple as an animal can be, but understanding its genetic organization is helping to reveal the mechanisms of life and, by extension, the mechanisms of our own lives. In the Beginning Was the Worm shows that in order to unlock the secrets of the human genome we must first understand the worm.

But this story is about more than just the worm. It is about how an eccentric group of impassioned scientists toiled in near anonymity for years, driven only by a deep passion for knowledge and scientific discovery. It is the story of countless hours of research, immense ambition, and one of the greatest discoveries in human history.

Brown's book traces the worm project from its inception, as fascinating for the obsessive, almost nerd-like quality of the researchers as for the unravelling of the worm's wormliness.


Brown—an award-winning religious affairs journalist and the author of The Darwin Wars (1999)—is at his best when telling the human story behind the scientific work.


[Brown] illustrates how the story of the worm stretches across the history of molecular biology and the understanding of biological development in animals, from worms to people.

Science News

What Brown does remarkably well in In the Beginning is to convey the passion, idealism, and cooperative spirit of the early worm workers.

Science Magazine

Brown should be commended for making what may seem to be obscure, esoteric science both accessible and exciting.

Rachel A. Ankeny, American Scientist

In an era when scientific storytelling has become commonplace, this book stands out for its lesson on independent thought.... Brown clearly relates the perseverance and vision of the first generation of worm scientists that led to these accomplishments.

Catherine A. Wolkow and Mark P. Mattson, Journal of Clinical Investigation

[Brown's] experience in communicating science to the layman serves him well in this new account. Recommended... all levels.


About the Author

Andrew Brown is a journalist who writes extensively for the Guardian, the Independent, and the Daily Mail. He is the author of two acclaimed books: Watching the Detectives and The Darwin Wars.