The Worm Is Learned

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Try to think of it as a tiny little person. In a milestone step published in Friday's issue of Science, biologists have decoded an animal's entire genome, the complex set of instructions for life. The subject? A microscopic roundworm called Caenorhabditis elegans. Until now, the only full genetic maps were of single-celled organisms like yeast and bacteria; the leap to a complex multi-cellular beast like the roundworm moves genetics forward about half a billion years on the evolutionary timeline.

Of course, this milestone has been in sight for a while; the project has been ongoing for 10 years. "They've published most of this already on the Internet as they go along," notes TIME senior editor Philip Elmer-DeWitt. "So, for instance, we already knew that we share some 40 percent of our genes with the worm -- and that came out of this research." Still, the completion provides even more grist for the gaggle of university researchers and private firms racing to be the first to complete the top genetic prize: producing a complete map of the 30-times-more-complex human genome. The large number of similar genes will make it easier to locate the rest hidden in a person's 46 chromosomes. "In the last 10 years," Dr. Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences, told the New York Times, "we have come to realize humans are more like worms than we ever imagined." Doubtless Ken Starr would agree.