A life of Science

Recently I had the privilege to sit in on a lecture given by Sir John Gurdon who shared the 2012 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine. At 81 years of age Gurdon has dedicated his life to scientific research. He has conducted hundreds of experiments and has delivered an immense amount of knowledge on stem cells and how these cells choose their fate and become specific cell types.  Apart from his impressive resumé of publications and research he still has an inexhaustible drive to gain more knowledge on stem cells and particularly their future therapeutic applications.  Its lucky for us that Gurdon did not listen to his high school teacher who wrote on his report card that his dream of becoming a scientist was “a sheer waste of time, both on his part, and of those who have to teach him.”. Not too bad for a Nobel Prize winner and fellow of the Royal Society.

John Gurdon. Image by Rubenstein [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0] from flicker.
John Gurdon. Image by Rubenstein [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0] from flicker.
The 2012 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine:

This prize was awarded to two people, Sir John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka for “the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent”. Basically pluripotent stem cells are cells that have the ability to turn into nearly any cells that make up the body. Both of these recipients had made significant discoveries to this field and as such where awarded the Nobel Prize for their excellent work.

Gurdon received the 2012 Nobel Prize for work that he did over 50 years prior, from the end of the 1950s and into to the early 1960s. This massive gap between the publication of his research and the prize is unusual. At the time of publication the full significance of his research was not recognised. Today we can appreciate the importance of his work, and it is testament to his standards of excellence back in the 1950/60s.

Stem cells. Image by Joseph Elsbernd [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0] from flicker.
Stem cells. Image by Joseph Elsbernd [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0] from flicker.
Everyone knows the story of Dolly the sheep, the first cloned mammal back in 1996. However not many people are aware that in fact it was Gurdon who created the first cloned vertebrate animal– a frog (Xenopus laevis) over 35 years before Dolly. In a small half page article in Nature from 1958, the world saw that Gurdon was able to successfully clone 61 normal tadpoles from 905 attempts.

African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis). Image by Brian Gratwicke [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0] from flicker.
African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis). Image by Brian Gratwicke [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0] from flicker.
However the 1958 Nature article would prove to be an important step leading to his ground breaking seminal paper of 1962, where for the first time in human history nuclei of somatic cells (in this case intestinal epithelium cells) were  transplanted into an enucleated frog egg (eggs that had their nuclei removed). The resulting experiment lead to 10 fully functional cloned tadpoles that went on to develop into healthy mature frogs.

What does Gurdon’s research mean?

Gurdon’s 1962 seminal paper was the first conclusive evidence that genes were not lost nor gained but rather their activity was altered during cellular differentiation. It is common knowledge today that every cell within our body shares the same genome but it is the activation or inhibition of particular genes which leads to the many different specific cell types in our body.  Gurdon’s research has provided us with the foundations in developmental biology, particularly in cloning, and this is why he won the Nobel Prize.

This is but a fraction of the achievements that Gurdon has accomplished and even today he still oversees ground breaking research at the Gurdon institute, The University of Cambridge.

4 Responses to “A life of Science”

  1. mbarrand says:

    Cloning is a dangerous science. I remember watching a documentary where scientists cloned a reptile and added frog DNA to that clone. They wanted only female clones but the frog DNA allowed some of the clones to switch to males allowing reproduction. The end result was an island covered in velociraptors. Ever since then I have been afraid of what cloning might do.

  2. gmgo says:

    Wow, imagine the dedication needed to continue such amazing work that remained unappreciated for 50 years. really interesting post.

  3. vchhen says:

    Wow did not know about Gurdon! Had no idea about the first cloned vertebrae being a frog! Really fascinating how that they were able to implant eggs into another frog. Makes you really appreciate the sheer brilliance of people!

    Awesome post Luke!

  4. arosdah says:

    Your post definitely captured my attention! I always think that Shinya Yamanaka’s induced pluripotent stem cell was the discovery of the century! And to top it up, it had been ‘foreseen’ more than 50 yrs ago by Gurdon!

    But, regarding Gurdon, sometimes it’s funny how some great discoveries are just not as widely surfaced as others..

    anyway, great post mate!