The C. elegans Nobel Prizes

C. elegans nobel prizes chronology

C. elegans have contributed to many research fields but did you know C. elegans researchers have received Nobel Prizes for it?

nobel prizes c. elegans chronology

2002: Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

“Genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death”

After Sydney Brenner introduced C. elegans as a model organism in the 70s, the tiny nematode proved pivotal in uncovering the mechanism of apoptosis (programmed cell death), a crucial process for the correct development of all multicellular organisms. Brenner and his colleagues Robert Horvitz and John Sulston won in 2022 the Nobel Prize for such discovery.

The elucidation of individual cell fates was made possible because C. elegans is transparent and has a fixed number of somatic cells (959), enabling scientists to follow the life of individual cells.

Dysregulation in apoptosis plays an essential role in multiple pathologies, including cancerneurodegenerative diseases, and stroke.

Sydney Brenner

Cancerous cells undergoing apoptosis after chemo-therapeutic treatment

C. elegans and cancer research and detection

2006: Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

“RNA interference – gene silencing by double-stranded RNA”

Andrew Fire and Craig Mello discovered that silencing specific genes in C. elegans was possible by injecting double-stranded RNA molecules in the worms, a mechanism they coined as RNAS interference (RNAi). In RNAi, specific RNA molecules bind to a complementary messenger RNA (mRNA), signaling to components of the cellular machinery to degrade the bound mRNA.

Scientists soon discovered that RNAi is a critical regulator of gene expression in most eukaryotes and a vital deference system against RNA-viruses infections. RNAi is now a standard approach in biotechnology to perform genetic manipulation in various organisms. In C. elegans, simply feeding the worms with bacteria expressing double-stranded RNA achieves targeted gene knockdowns.

Harnessing the power of RNAi, several biotechnological companies are now developing RNA-based therapeutics against cancer, viral infections, genetic disorders and several other human pathologies.

Electron micrograph of Lassa fever virus particle. Source: CDC, 2014
Colouration variation due to RNA-mediated gene silencing in Petunia hybdrida.

2008: Nobel Prize in Chemistry

“For the discovery and development of the green fluorescent protein (GFP)”

GFP comes from the bioluminescent jellyfish Aequorea Victoria and is now a staple of biomedical research. Researchers commonly use GFP to study gene expression or monitor a protein‘s location, trafficking and aggregation processes within cells and organisms.

C. elegans was instrumental in demonstrating the value of GFP to probe biological phenomena. Martin Chalfie created the C. elegans GFP-transgenic strain that expressed GFP in the six tough receptor neurons of C. elegans, showing that functional GFP could be constitutively expressed to tag relevant proteins of gene activity in animals other than Aequorea Victoria.

The jellyfish Aequorea victoria uses green fluorescent protein to glow in the dark. Credit: C. MILLS

Interested in knowing more? Check our our related blog posts

C. elegans and Cancer
5 fact about c. elegans
c. elegans and human genome project