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Sydney Brenner

Sydney Brenner
E. Lederberg, G. Stent, S. Brenner, J. Lederberg, 1965
Born (1927-01-13) 13 January 1927 (age 89)
Germiston, Gauteng, South Africa
Nationality South African
Fields Biology
Institutions University of Witwatersrand
University of California, Berkeley
Molecular Sciences Institute
King's College, Cambridge
Alma mater University of Witwatersrand
University of Oxford
University of California, Berkeley Postdoctoral fellow [1]
Doctoral advisor Template:If empty
Known for Caenorhabditis elegans[2], Apoptosis
Notable awards William Bate Hardy Prize (1969)
Albert Lasker Medical Research Award (1971)
Royal Medal (1974)
Gairdner Foundation International Award (1978)
Krebs Medal (1980)
Ciba Medal (1981)
Rosenstiel Award (1986)
Harvey Prize (1987)
Genetics Society of America Medal (1987)
Waterford Bio-Medical Science Award (1988)
Kyoto Prize (1990)
Copley Medal (1991)
Gairdner Foundation International Award (1991)
King Faisal International Prize in Medicine (1992)
Novartis Drew Award In Biomedical Research (2001)
Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine (2002)
Dan David Prize (2002)
Spouse May Covitz (m. 1952; 4 children)

Sydney Brenner, CH FRS FMedSci (born 13 January 1927) is a South African biologist and a 2002 Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine laureate, shared with H. Robert Horvitz and John Sulston.

Brenner made significant contributions to work on the genetic code, and other areas of molecular biology while working in the Medical Research Council Unit in Cambridge, England.

He established the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans as a model organism for the investigation of developmental biology,[2] and founded the Molecular Sciences Institute in Berkeley, California, U.S..


Brenner was born in the small town of Germiston, South Africa. His parents, Lena (Blacher) and Morris Brenner, were Jewish immigrants. His father, a cobbler, came to South Africa from Lithuania in 1910, and his mother, from Riga, Latvia, in 1922.[3][4]

He was educated at Germiston High School and the University of the Witwatersrand. Having completed the first three years of primary school in one year, it was noted then that he would be too young to qualify for the practice of medicine at the conclusion of his degree, and he was therefore allowed to complete a BMSc degree in Anatomy and Physiology. He stayed on for two more years doing an Honours degree and then an MSc degree, supporting himself by working part-time as a laboratory technician. During this time he was taught by Joel Mandelstam, Raymond Dart and Robert Broom. His master thesis was in the field of cytogenetics. In 1951 he received the MBBCh degree.[3]

He received an 1851 Exhibition Scholarship from the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 [5] which enabled him to complete a DPhil degree from Exeter College, Oxford. He then spent the next 20 years at the Medical Research Council Unit in Cambridge; here, during the 1960s, he contributed to molecular biology, then an emerging field. In 1976 he joined the Salk Institute in California.[6]


He was married to May Brenner (née Covitz, subsequently Balkind) from December 1952 until her death in January 2010; their children include Belinda, Carla, Stefan, and his stepson Jonathan Balkind from his wife's first marriage. He lives in Ely, Cambridgeshire.


Together with Jack Dunitz, Dorothy Hodgkin, Leslie Orgel, and Beryl M. Oughton, he was one of the first people in April 1953 to see the model of the structure of DNA, constructed by Francis Crick and James Watson; at the time he and the other scientists were working at Oxford University's Chemistry Department. All were impressed by the new DNA model, especially Brenner who subsequently worked with Crick at Cambridge in the Cavendish Laboratory and the new Laboratory of Molecular Biology.

According to the late Dr. Beryl Oughton, later Rimmer, they all travelled together in two cars once Dorothy Hodgkin announced to them that they were off to Cambridge to see the model of the structure of DNA.[7]

Brenner made several seminal contributions to the emerging field of molecular biology in the 1960s (see Phage group). The first was to prove that all overlapping genetic coding sequences were impossible. This insight separated the coding function from structural constraints as proposed in a clever code by George Gamow. This led Francis Crick to propose the concept of the adaptor or as it is now known "transfer RNA (tRNA)". The physical separation between the anticodon and the amino acid on a tRNA is the basis for the unidirectional flow of information in coded biological systems. This is commonly known as the central dogma of molecular biology i.e. that information flows from nucleic acid to protein and never from protein to nucleic acid. Following this adaptor insight, Brenner proposed the concept of a messenger RNA, based on correctly interpreting the work of Elliot "Ken" Volkin and Larry Astrachan.[8] Then, with Francis Crick, Leslie Barnett and Richard J. Watts-Tobin, Brenner genetically demonstrated the triplet nature of the code of protein translation through the Crick, Brenner, Barnett, Watts-Tobin et al. experiment of 1961, which discovered frameshift mutations. This insight provided early elucidation of the nature of the genetic code. Leslie Barnett also helped set up Sydney Brenner's laboratory in Singapore, many years later.

Brenner, with George Pieczenik, created the first computer matrix analysis of nucleic acids using TRAC, which Brenner continues to use. Crick, Brenner, Klug and Pieczenik returned to their early work on deciphering the genetic code with a pioneering paper on the origin of protein synthesis, where constraints on mRNA and tRNA co-evolved allowing for a five-base interaction with a flip of the anticodon loop, and thereby creating a triplet code translating system without requiring a ribosome. This model requires a partially overlapping code. This is the only published paper in scientific history with three independent Nobel laureates collaborating as authors.

Brenner then focused on establishing Caenorhabditis elegans as a model organism for the investigation of animal development including neural development. Brenner chose this 1-millimeter-long soil roundworm mainly because it is simple, is easy to grow in bulk populations, and turned out to be quite convenient for genetic analysis. For this work, he shared the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with H. Robert Horvitz and John Sulston. The title of his Nobel lecture on December 2002, "Nature's Gift to Science," is a homage to this modest nematode; in it, he considered that having chosen the right organism turned out to be as important as having addressed the right problems to work on.[9] In 2002, he won the Dan David Prize (that was directed by Professor Gad Barzilai) and the March of Dimes Prize in Developmental Biology. In recognition of his pioneering role in starting what is now a global research community that work on C. elegans, another closely related nematode was given the scientific name Caenorhabditis brenneri.[10]

Brenner founded the Molecular Sciences Institute in Berkeley, California in 1996.[11] He is currently associated with the Salk Institute, the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, the Singapore Biomedical Research Council, the Janelia Farm Research Campus, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. In August 2005, Brenner was appointed president of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology. He is also on the Board of Scientific Governors at The Scripps Research Institute,[12] as well as being Professor of Genetics there.[13] A scientific biography of Brenner was written by Errol Friedberg in the US, for publication by CSHL Press in October 2010: a companion biography to that of Francis Crick by Robert Olby published in August 2009.

Known for his penetrating scientific insight and acerbic wit, Brenner, for many years, penned a regular column ("Loose Ends") in the journal Current Biology. This column was so popular that "Loose ends from Current Biology", a compilation, was published in 1997 by Current Biology Ltd. (ISBN 1 85922 325 7) and is now a collectors' item. Brenner wrote "A Life In Science" (ISBN 0-9540278-0-9), a paperback published by Biomed Central Ltd. in 2001. Brenner is also noted for his generosity with ideas and the great number of students and colleagues his ideas have stimulated.

Brenner was awarded the National Science and Technology Medal by A*STAR, Singapore on 11 October 2006 for his distinguished and strategic contributions to the development of Singapore’s scientific capability and culture, particularly in the biomedical sciences sector.[14]

In 2008, Sydney Brenner gave his alma mater, the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, in South Africa the privilege of using his name for their new 21st Century research institute. The Sydney Brenner Institute for Molecular Bioscience (SBIMB) is located within a medical and health precinct in Parktown, Johannesburg, in close proximity to the Wits Medical School, Wits School of Public Health, the Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital and is opposite the ear-marked site of the proposed future Nelson Mandela Children's Hospital.

"American plan" and "European plan"

The "American plan" and "European Plan" were proposed by Sydney Brenner as competing models for the way brain cells determine their neural functions.

According to the European plan (sometimes referred to as the British plan), the function of cells is determined by its genetic lineage. Therefore, a mother cell with a specific function (for instance, interpreting visual information) would create daughter cells with similar functions.

According to the American plan, a brain cell's function is determined by the function of its neighbors after cell migration. If a cell migrates to an area in the visual cortex, the cell will adopt the function of its neighboring visual cortex cells, guided by chemical and axonal signals from these cells. If the same cell migrates to the auditory cortex, it would develop functions related to hearing, regardless of its genetic lineage.

Books by Sydney Brenner

  • "Loose Ends" : Collection of Loose Ends/False Starts columns by 'Uncle Syd.' from January 1994 to December 2000 (Current Biology, 1997) ISBN 1859223257
  • 'My Life in Science', with Lewis Wolpert, edited by Errol C. Friedberg and Eleanor Lawrence, BioMed Central 2001, 199pp ISBN 0-9540278-0-9

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b Brenner, S. (1974). "The genetics of Caenorhabditis elegans". Genetics 77 (1): 71–94. PMC 1213120. PMID 4366476.  edit
  3. ^ a b "Sydney Brenner - Autobiography". Retrieved 2008-09-28. 
  4. ^
  5. ^ 1851 Royal Commission Archives
  6. ^
  7. ^ Olby, Robert, Francis Crick: Hunter of Life's Secrets, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2009, Chapter 10, p. 181 ISBN 978-0-87969-798-3
  8. ^ [Volkin, E. & Astrachan, L. Phosphorus incorporation in Escherichia coli ribonucleic acid after infection with bacteriophage T2. Virol. 2, 149-161 (1956)]
  9. ^ Sydney Brenner (8 December 2002). "Nobel Lecture: Nature's Gift to Science" (VIDEO & PDF). Retrieved 2008-09-28. 
  10. ^ Sudhausi, Walter; Kiontke, Karin (25 April 2007). "Comparison of the cryptic nematode species Caenorhabditis brenneri sp. n" (PDF). Zootaxa (Magnolia Press) 1456: 45–62. Retrieved 2008-09-28. 
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^ A*STAR Corporate Site - Awards - NSTM - Winner Citation


  • The Science Times Book of the Brain 1998. Edited by Nicholas Wade. The Lyons Press
  • Judson, H. F. The Eighth Day of Creation (1979), p. 10–11
  • Brenner, S., G. Elgar, R. Sandford, A. Macrae, B. Venkatesh et al., 1993 "Characterization of the pufferfish (Fugu) genome as a compact model vertebrate genome". Nature 366: 265–268.

Further reading

Books about Sydney Brenner

Books referring to Sydney Brenner

  • Soraya De Chadarevian; Designs For Life: Molecular Biology After World War II, CUP 2002, 444 pp; ISBN 0-521-57078-6
  • Francis Crick; What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery (Basic Books reprint edition, 1990) ISBN 0-465-09138-5
  • Georgina Ferry; 'Max Perutz and the Secret of Life', (Chatto & Windus 2007) 352pp, ISBN 978-0-7011-7695-2. For uncaptioned picture.
  • John Finch; 'A Nobel Fellow On Every Floor', Medical Research Council 2008, 381 pp, ISBN 978-1-84046-940-0; this book is all about the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge.
  • Horace Freeland Judson, The Eighth Day of Creation. Makers of the Revolution in Biology; Penguin Books 1995, first published by Jonathan Cape, 1977; ISBN 0-14-017800-7.
  • Robert Olby; Francis Crick: Hunter of Life's Secrets, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, ISBN 978-0-87969-798-3, published on 25 August 2009.
  • Max Perutz; What a Time I am Having: Selected Letters., CSHL Press 2008, 506pp ISBN 978-0-87969-864-5. For captioned picture.
  • Matt Ridley; Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code (Eminent Lives) first published in June 2006 in the US and then in the UK September 2006, by HarperCollins Publishers; 192 pp, ISBN 0-06-082333-X; in paperback, by Atlas Books (with index), ISBN 978-0-00-721331-3.
  • Lewis Wolpert; How We Live and Why We Die, Faber and Faber 2009, 240 pp; ISBN 978-0-571-23912-2
  • Brenner, S., G. Elgar, R. Sandford, A. Macrae, B. Venkatesh et al., 1993 "Characterization of the pufferfish (Fugu) genome as a compact model vertebrate genome". Nature 366: 265–268.

External links

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