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Summary Article: Sanger, Frederick (1918-2013)
from The Hutchinson Dictionary of Scientific Biography

Place: Sweden

Subject: biography, chemistry

English biochemist who worked out the sequence of amino acids in various protein molecules. For his work on insulin he was awarded the 1958 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. For determining the sequence in the DNA molecule, he became one of the very few scientists to receive a second Nobel Prize when, in 1980, he shared the Chemistry Prize with the US molecular biologists Paul Berg and Walter Gilbert.

Sanger was born in Rendcomb, Gloucestershire, on 13 August 1918, the son of a doctor. He was educated at Bryanston School and at St John's College, Cambridge, from which he graduated in 1939. He then began research in biochemistry, gaining his PhD in 1943 and working as a research fellow until 1951. In that year he joined the staff of the Medical Research Council and in 1961 became head of the Protein and Nucleic Acid Chemistry Division of the council's Molecular Biology Laboratory at Cambridge. He retired in 1983 and lived out of the public eye afterwards. He is honoured in the name of the Sanger Institute, near Cambridge, primarily funded by the Wellcome Trust; its mission is to further understanding of gene function in health and disease.

Beginning in 1943 Sanger and his co-workers determined the sequence of 51 amino acids in the insulin molecule, using samples of the hormone obtained from cattle pancreases. By 1945 he had discovered a compound, Sanger's reagent (2, 4-dinitrofluorobenzene), which attaches itself to amino acids and so he was able to break the protein chain into smaller pieces and analyse them using paper chromatography. By 1953 he had determined the sequence for insulin, and even shown that there are small but precise differences between the structures of insulins from different animals. He also worked out the structures of other proteins, including various enzymes.

In the late 1950s Sanger turned his attention to the sequence of the nucleotides that link to form the protein strands in the nucleic acids RNA and DNA. The double-helical structure of DNA had been determined by Francis Crick and James Watson in 1953, and within the next few years other workers had identified enzymes that can join nucleotides to form chains and others that can cut existing chains into shorter pieces. Sanger used the chain-cutting type of enzyme to identify nucleotides and their order along the chain, and in 1977 he and his co-workers announced that they had established the sequence of the more than 5,000 nucleotides along a strand of RNA from the bacterial virus called R17. They later worked out the order for mitochondrial DNA, which has approximately 17,000 nucleotides.

© RM, 2018. All rights reserved.

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