"Yea, the stars are not pure in his sight," reads the Book of Job. "How much less man, that is a worm?" Typical. As Bartlett's Familiar Quotations will attest, worms are the most famously low vermin in literature. People are usually the writers' real targets, but worms take the rhetorical beating. Jonathan Edwards, for instance, invoked them to rail, "A little, wretched, despicable creature; a worm, a mere nothing, and less than nothing; a vile insect that has risen up in contempt against the majesty of Heaven and earth." Worms are the acme of insignificance.
And yet biologists love them. Granted, researchers' affection falls mainly on the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans, an inoffensive microscopic beastie. As I write this, John E. Sulston of the Sanger Center in England and Robert H. Waterston of Washington University have only just published the complete genetic sequence for C. elegans. For the first time, science knows all the genetic information that makes up a multicellular animal. That brilliant accomplishment foretells the completion of the Human Genome Project just a few years from now, when we will similarly know all the genes of humans.
This article was originally published with the title Worm Gets the Early Bird.