(1927-) British scientist who played a major role in the development of molecular genetics and established a major new field of research on the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans.
Sydney Brenner was born in Germiston, South Africa, on 13 January 1927 of Russian parents. As a small boy he was a voracious reader and became interested in science, carrying out experiments extracting pigments from plants at home when he was 10 years old. At 15, he went to the University of Witwatersrand to read medicine but part way through the course, he did an MSc, publishing his first paper (in Nature) when he was 18 years old. Brenner completed his medical and pharmaceutical degrees (MB, BCh) in 1951. He was determined to do research and in 1952 went to the University of Oxford to work with Sir Cyril Norman Hinshelwood, a chemist who won the 1956 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Hinshelwood had an interest in biology and particularly the analysis of bacterial growth. He approached this as a problem in chemical kinetics, a strategy that did not find much favour with bacteriologists. This was not the sort of research that Brenner wanted to do, but he nevertheless completed his doctorate in 1954. See also: Hinshelwood, Cyril Norman, and Bacterial Reproduction and Growth
During this period, Brenner met many of the leading scientists in England, most notably Francis Crick and James Watson. In April 1953, Brenner went with Leslie Orgel and Jack Dunitz to Cambridge, to see the model of the newly completed double helix. This was the first occasion on which he had met Watson and Crick, and, he wrote later, the experience of talking to them led to his decision that molecular genetics was the research area for him. Brenner kept in correspondence with Watson and a further initiation into his newly chosen field came when, during the summer of 1954, he worked at Cold Spring Harbor and visited other centres of phage research in the United States. Brenner returned to South Africa in December 1954 and set up a laboratory to carry out phage genetics. However, in January 1957, Brenner returned to England, to take up a Medical Research Council fellowship with Francis Crick in Cambridge, in what later became the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology. See also: Crick, Francis Harry Compton, Watson, James Dewey, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB), and Bacteriophages, Bacteriophages in Industry, Medical Research Council (MRC)
Brenner has made significant contributions to three areas of modern experimental biology. The first is the development of molecular genetics (1953-1966), where he is known especially for four classic studies, three of which dealt with the elucidation of the genetic code. While still in South Africa, Brenner wrote a very elegant theoretical paper in which he showed that a particular type of genetic code was impossible. Later Crick and Brenner and their colleagues designed a beautiful set of experiments, making mutations in E. coli, which demonstrated that the genetic code was undoubtedly made up of triplets of nucleotides (which Brenner named codons). The third study, carried out by Brenner, François Jacob and Matthew Meselson, found messenger RNA (mRNA), which had been predicted on theoretical grounds as an intermediate between DNA and the cellular machinery that carries out protein synthesis. Finally, just as the genetic code was being deciphered by biochemical rather than genetic means, Brenner used genetic analysis to elucidate the ‘nonsense’ codons in DNA that determine where synthesis of mRNAs should stop. See also: Codon Usage in Molecular EvolutionJacob, François, Transcriptional Mechanisms (overview)
By 1965, Brenner and some other pioneers of molecular genetics believed that only ‘mopping-up’ the details remained and that new conceptual advances in this area were unlikely. They moved to other fields although in Brenner's case he created a new area of research. Brenner began a systematic search for a higher organism that would permit genetic analysis of complex biological processes such as development and the functioning of the nervous system. He settled on Caenorhabditis elegans, a hermaphroditic nematode worm with only about 1000 cells. Brenner was joined by John Sulston, who carried out a detailed analysis of the development of C. elegans and determined how each cell in the adult worm was derived from the fertilized egg. Furthermore, it was easy to make and detect mutations in C. elegans, and then to do genetic analysis to determine what genes were involved. Brenner's promotion of C. elegans is, perhaps, his greatest contribution to biology. It is the research tool for thousands of scientists, and between 1995 and 2000, no fewer than 3500 papers were published on C. elegans. See also: Caenorhabditis elegans as an Experimental Organism, and Caenorhabditis elegans Embryo: Genetic Analysis of Cell Specification
Brenner's third change of career was from C. elegans to genomics, the study of organisms through the knowledge of their entire genetic information. Brenner was an early enthusiast for genome projects and, indeed, C. elegans was the first multicellular animal to have its genome completely sequenced. Brenner turned to vertebrates and again searched for an organism more suitable for genomic studies than mice or humans. He selected Fugu rubripes, the Japanese pufferfish which has a genome approximately one-tenth that of other vertebrates, making it easier to carry out genome-based research. Brenner founded the Molecular Sciences Institute in La Jolla, California, to pursue his interests in genomics. See also: Genome, Proteome, and the Quest for a Full Structure - Function Description of an Organism, Human Genome, the Challenge, and United States of America: Life Science Organizations
Brenner is famous as a conversationalist, wit (’Occam's Broom’ to be used for sweeping awkward facts under the carpet) and coiner of words (codon and replicon). He writes humorous articles for a science journal; these were published as a collection and convey much of Brenner's personality.
Brenner is a Companion of Honor (1987) and a Fellow of many societies including the Royal Society (1965) and Foreign Associate of the National Academy of Sciences (1977). His many prizes include the Albert Lasker Medical Research Award (1971); the Royal and Copley Medals of the Royal Society (1974, 1991); and the Kyoto (1990) and King Faisal International Prize for Science (1992).
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