James King-Holmes/Science Photo Library

Predicting natural death is generally impossible, save for those who study Caenorhabditis elegans: They know the precise moment that 131 cells, and only those 131 cells, are programmed to die. The timing and location of cell death is identical during the development of every tiny C. elegans worm. Nobel laureates John Sulston and Robert Horvitz discovered these cellular suicides in 1976 when they mapped the fate of C. elegans' 1,090 cells.

"It really did jump out," recalls Sulston. "We had no idea that we were going to be able to see [cell death], and that it would be one of the cell fates, being absolutely determined by the origin of the cell." That map, which is still the only complete cartography of a whole organism, spawned the field of programmed cell-death research, known as apoptosis, and highlights how important the regulation of cell death...

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