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The Science

Through genetic analysis of the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, Robert Horvitz discovered and characterized many genes that play highly specific roles during animal development and in animal behavior. He defined genes that control specific aspects of cell lineage and cell fate, including the generation of cell diversity during development; the timing of particular developmental events; inter- and intracellular signaling; and programmed cell death.

Horvitz's molecular analyses of these genes revealed most of them to be strikingly similar to genes found in other organisms, including humans, and in many cases similar to genes that cause human disease.

One specific major discovery made by Horvitz during his studies of nematode cell lineage is the finding that cell death is an active biological process involving a specific set of genes. He found that those genes function within cells that die to bring about their deaths and defined a genetic pathway that constitutes the genetic "program" for programmed cell death. These findings established a pathway for programmed cell death that appears to be conserved from nematode to human and that is important for many aspects of animal biology. His discoveries are of particular relevance for our understanding of major human ailments such as cancer, autoimmune and degenerative diseases.

By Professor Rudolf Jaenisch