By Becca Bayham
Worms don’t typically evoke a sense of awe. But C. elegans nematode worms — all 558 cells of them — played an important role in how scientific data is shared today.
Scientists Robert Waterston and Sir John Sulston described this connection during the James B. Wyngaarden Distinguished Lecture on Nov. 14, sponsored by the Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy. [Watch the whole lecture – 1 hour, 9 minutes)
During the 80s, Waterston and Sulston were unraveling the nematode genome at their University of Cambridge lab. Worms make good subjects for study because they are finite, transparent and genetically manipulatable.
When Waterston moved from Cambridge to Washington University in St. Louis, he felt isolated from the research community he’d left. However, an informal and creatively-covered publication — the Worm Breeder’s Gazette (see photo at left) — helped bridge that physical divide. Researchers used the Gazette to share short summaries of their discoveries.
“Through this very informal means, the community was made aware of what was going on, and invited to share in it,” Waterston said. “Indeed, it worked spectacularly. Now we knew not just these anonymous pieces of DNA, but where they belonged. And that made [the data] much more useful for us and the community.”
Waterston and Sulston were the first to sequence a multi-cellular organism’s genome. Following their success with worms, the two moved on to the holy grail of science at the time: the human genome.
In terms of data sharing, “human genetics was the polar opposite of the worm field. Human geneticists held things very close to their chests,” Waterston said.
In 1996, the two scientists joined other researchers at a conference in Bermuda to discuss how human genome data should be handled. Should it be stored in proprietary databases, with limited access? Or shared freely with the world? Waterston and Sulston advocated for the latter, and this opinion ultimately prevailed. If it hadn’t, the humane genome story might have ended differently — or not at all. Data sharing “kept the lines of communication open” between researchers, Waterston said, and greatly facilitated the sequencing process.
Sure enough, following the human genome’s completion in 2000, the entire sequence was released into the public domain. Public data sharing has become standard practice for other animal genomes and other areas of science. However, even though Waterston and Sulston’s efforts encouraged data sharing on a massive scale, the tendency towards secrecy still exists.
“Pushing for more open science continues to be important,” Waterston said. “The nature of science is that private initiatives continue to push on public domain. If we don’t push back, we’re going to be the poorer for it.”