Stories of ‘traces of genius’
‘John Sulston and the Hole in the Floor’ by Bob Goldstein
John Sulston worked as a PostDoc with Sydney Brenner at the MRC LMB. Later he shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Sydney Brenner and H. Robert Horvitz, for their discoveries concerning ‘genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death’. One of Sulston’s most important contributions during his research years at the LMB was to elucidate the precise order in which cells in C. elegans divide. In fact, he and his team succeeded in tracing the nematode’s entire embryonic cell lineage.
Bob Goldstein narrates how Sulston traced the lineage in a small room on the third floor for over ten years, following simple lineages with the door open each morning, and closing himself in for more difficult ones each afternoon. “The hole was already a famous story among worm scientists when I got to the LMB, and Sulston corrected the story to us – he did make a hole in the tile by pivoting back and forth (scope to notebook and back) for years, but under the tile was already a fault in the floor. He took his chair out of the hole once the leg broke through the tile the first time. Rebecca Haydenblit (Beni P’s wife, who had trained as a dentist and so knew how to cast holes) and I cast it in a rush when some guy came to do repairs. I begged him to wait a day and then we went in late that night and made a clay-negative, which we used to make two white plaster bricks with replicas of the hole. The clay had trapped the hole’s lint and dirt, which ended up then in the otherwise pristine plaster, so we called each of them, fondly, Sulston’s dirty hole. We gave one to Sulston who did indeed recognize it immediately, and the other to Jonathan Hodgkin, who seemed an appropriate keeper of a C.elegans museum piece.”