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Sydney Brenner

Director of Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge

Sydney Brenner British geneticist and winner of the Noble Prize in Physiology of Medicine in 2002 was born 13 January 1927 in Germiston South Africa son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. His father a shoe repairer came to South Africa from Lithuania in 1910 his mother from Latvia in 1922.

After primary school Brenner was educated at Germiston High School from which he matriculated in December 1941. In 1942 he attended the University of Witwatersrand Johannesburg South Africa and graduated M.Sc. in 1947 and M.B. B.Ch. in 1951. Brenner studied physical chemistry with Joel Mandelstam (later professor at Oxford University) microscopy with Alfred Oettle and neurology with Harold Daitz. Raymond Dart and Robert Broom were his teachers for anthropology and palaeontology.

In 1952 Brenner began his doctoral studies in the Physical Chemistry Laboratory at Oxford University England funded by an Overseas Scholarship of the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851. His research topic was bacteriophage resistance in bacteria and he was awarded a D.Phil. in 1954.

In 1952 Brenner married May in London and they had three children. At the end of 1954 after visiting laboratories in the United States in his capacity as a Carnegie Corporation Fellow he returned to South Africa in accordance with the terms of the fellowship. There he continued his research in the laboratory at the Department of Physiology in the Medical School. In 1956 he left South Africa again to work on molecular genetics in the Medical Research Council (MRC) Unit in Cambridge England and its successor the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology where his work on Caenorhabditis elegans was initiated and developed. In 1961 Brenner identified messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) a molecule that acts as an intermediary between DNA and protein production. In that same year Brenner and British biophysicist Francis Crick identified codons groups of three nucleotides.

In the academic session of 1979 to 1980 Brenner was Gifford Lecturer at the University of Glasgow one of his many lectureships in Europe and North America. From 1979 to 1987 he served as Director of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology and in 1987 became Director of the MRC Unit of Molecular Genetics in Cambridge a post he held until his retirement in 1992. After his retirement he started to work in a part-time appointment at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla California and four years later in 1996 founded a private research institute the Molecular Sciences Institute (MSI) in Berkeley California. He was the institute's first director. He retired from the institute in 2000 and in the following year was appointed a Distinguished Professor in the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla California and Adjunct Professor at the University of California San Diego.

In 2002 Brenner was awarded the Noble Prize in Physiology or Medicine. He shares the honour with his former colleagues American geneticist Dr. H. Robert Horvitz at MIT and British geneticist Sir Dr. John E. Sulston at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge England. They were awarded the prize in recognition of their discoveries concerning the genetic regulation of organ development and cell death in multicellular animals discoveries based on their work on the nematode (roundworm) Caenorhabditis elegans.

Brenner’s many honours include the 1974 Royal Medal and the 1991 Copley Medal of the Royal Society of London two Albert Lasker Awards (for medical research in 1974 and for special achievement in medical science in 2000) the Gairdner Foundation International Award in 1991 the March of Dimes Prize in Developmental Biology (2002) and the Dan David Prize in 2002. He was appointed Companion of Honour in 1987.

Brenner is a fellow of King’s College Cambridge the Royal Society and the Royal College of Physicians. He also is an honorary member of numerous other societies and is the recipient of honorary degrees from many universities and colleges including Trinity College Dublin and the Universities of Witwatersrand (South Africa) Chicago Columbia Harvard London Glasgow Leicester Oxford and Cambridge.

For many years he has written a column called ‘Loose Ends’ for Current Biology. Among his publications are Molecular Biology: A Selection of Papers (1989) and My Life in Science published in 2001. He is co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Genetics.

  • Benedikt Bock, University of Glasgow