Sydney Brenner

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Sydney Brenner
EMLederberg GStent SBrenner JLederberg 1965 wiki.jpg
Esther Lederberg, Gunther Stent, Sydney Brenner and Joshua Lederberg pictured in 1965
Born Sydney Brenner
(1927-01-13) 13 January 1927 (age 88)[1]
Germiston, Gauteng, South Africa
Nationality South African
Fields Biology
Alma mater
Thesis The physical chemistry of cell processes: a study of bacteriophage resistance in Escherichia coli, strain B (1954)
Doctoral advisor Cyril Hinshelwood[4][5]
Doctoral students
Known for
Influences Fred Sanger[10]
Notable awards
Spouse May Brenner (née Covitz) (m. 1952)
Children 3

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 Bob 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 (MRC) Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England. He established the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans as a model organism for the investigation of developmental biology,[8] and founded the Molecular Sciences Institute in Berkeley, California, U.S..[11][12][13][14][15][16][17][18]

Education and early life[edit]

Brenner was born in the 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.[19][20]

He was educated at Germiston High School[1] 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.[19]

Brenner received an 1851 Exhibition Scholarship from the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 which enabled him to complete a Doctor of Philosophy (DPhil)[21] degree at the University of Oxford as a postgraduate student of Exeter College, Oxford supervised by Cyril Hinshelwood.[4]

Career and research[edit]

Following his PhD, Brenner did postdoctoral research at the University of California, Berkeley.[22] He spent the next 20 years at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology[23] in Cambridge; here, during the 1960s, he contributed to molecular biology, then an emerging field. In 1976 he joined the Salk Institute in California.[1]

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 the University of Oxford's Chemistry Department. All were impressed by the new DNA model, especially Brenner who subsequently worked with Crick in the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge and the newly opened Laboratory of Molecular Biology.

According to the late 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.[24]

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.[25] 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,[26] 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.[27]

Brenner founded the Molecular Sciences Institute in Berkeley, California in 1996.[3] As of 2015 he is 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.[3] In August 2005, Brenner was appointed president of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology.[citation needed] He is also on the Board of Scientific Governors at The Scripps Research Institute,[28] as well as being Professor of Genetics there.[2] A scientific biography of Brenner was written by Errol Friedberg in the US, for publication by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press in 2010.[14]

Known for his penetrating scientific insight and acerbic wit, Brenner, for many years, authored a regular column ("Loose Ends") in the journal Current Biology.[29][30] This column was so popular that "Loose ends from Current Biology", a compilation, was published by Current Biology Ltd.[31] and is now[when?] a collectors' item. Brenner wrote "A Life In Science",[32] a paperback published by BioMed Central. Brenner is also noted for his generosity with ideas and the great number of students and colleagues his ideas have stimulated.[33][34][35][36]

American plan and European plan[edit]

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

Awards and honours[edit]

Brenner has received numerous awards and honours including:

Personal life[edit]

Brenner was married to May Brenner (née Covitz, subsequently Balkind)[1] 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.[42][43]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h BRENNER, Sydney. Who's Who 2015 (online Oxford University Press ed.). A & C Black, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing plc.  (subscription required)
  2. ^ a b "Sydney Brenner PhD". Archived from the original on 2012-02-02. 
  3. ^ a b c "Janelia Farm: Sydney Brenner". Archived from the original on 2007-12-27. 
  4. ^ a b c d "Sydney Brenner Academic Tree". Archived from the original on 2012-09-08. 
  5. ^ Thompson, H. (1973). "Cyril Norman Hinshelwood 1897-1967". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 19: 374. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1973.0015. 
  6. ^ Rubin, Gerald Mayer (1974). Studies on 5.8 S Ribosomal RNA. (PhD thesis). University of Cambridge. OCLC 500553465. 
  7. ^ White, John Graham (1974). Computer Aided Reconstruction of the Nervous System of Caenorhabditis Elegans. (PhD thesis). University of Cambridge. OCLC 180702071. 
  8. ^ a b Brenner, S. (1974). "The genetics of Caenorhabditis elegans". Genetics 77 (1): 71–94. PMC 1213120. PMID 4366476. 
  9. ^ Sulston, J.; Brenner, S. (1974). "The DNA of Caenorhabditis elegans". Genetics 77 (1): 95–104. PMC 1213121. PMID 4858229. 
  10. ^ Elizabeth Dzeng (2014). "How Academia and Publishing are Destroying Scientific Innovation: A Conversation with Sydney Brenner". Archived from the original on 2015-02-05. 
  11. ^ The Science Times Book of the Brain 1998. Edited by Nicholas Wade. The Lyons Press
  12. ^ Horace Freeland Judson The Eighth Day of Creation (1979), p. 10–11 Makers of the Revolution in Biology; Penguin Books 1995, first published by Jonathan Cape, 1977; ISBN 0-14-017800-7.
  13. ^ Brenner, S.; Elgar, G.; Sanford, R.; Macrae, A.; Venkatesh, B.; Aparicio, S. (1993). "Characterization of the pufferfish (Fugu) genome as a compact model vertebrate genome". Nature 366 (6452): 265–268. doi:10.1038/366265a0. ISSN 0028-0836. 
  14. ^ a b "Sydney Brenner: A Biography" by Errol Friedberg, pub. CSHL Press October 2010, ISBN 0-87969-947-7.
  15. ^ de Chadarevian, Soraya (2009). "Interview with Sydney Brenner". Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 40 (1): 65–71. doi:10.1016/j.shpsc.2008.12.008. ISSN 1369-8486. 
  16. ^ Friedberg, Errol C. (2008). "Sydney Brenner". Nature Reviews Molecular Cell Biology 9 (1): 8–9. doi:10.1038/nrm2320. ISSN 1471-0072. 
  17. ^ Sydney Brenner's publications indexed by the Scopus bibliographic database, a service provided by Elsevier.
  18. ^ "Sydney Brenner publications". Google Scholar. 
  19. ^ a b "Sydney Brenner - Autobiography". Retrieved 2008-09-28. 
  20. ^ "Brenner, Sydney (1927- ) World of Microbiology and Immunology". 
  21. ^ Brenner, Syndney (1954). The physical chemistry of cell processes : a study of bacteriophage resistance in Escherichia coli, strain B (DPhil thesis). University of Oxford. OCLC 775695643. 
  22. ^ "Sydney Brenner: Senior Distinguished Fellow of the Crick-Jacobs Center". Salk Institute. 
  23. ^ 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.
  24. ^ 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
  25. ^ Volkin, Elliot; Astrachan, L. (1956). "Phosphorus incorporation in Escherichia coli ribonucleic acid after infection with bacteriophage T2". Virology 2 (2): 149–161. doi:10.1016/0042-6822(56)90016-2. ISSN 0042-6822. 
  26. ^ Crick FH, Barnett L, Brenner S, Watts-Tobin RJ (December 1961). "General nature of the genetic code for proteins". Nature 192 (4809): 1227–32. Bibcode:1961Natur.192.1227C. doi:10.1038/1921227a0. PMID 13882203. 
  27. ^ Sydney Brenner (8 December 2002). "Nobel Lecture: Nature's Gift to Science" (video & pdf). Retrieved 2008-09-28. 
  28. ^
  29. ^ "Library: Sydney Brenner's Loose Ends". 
  30. ^ Brenner, Sydney (1994). "Loose Ends". Current Biology 4 (1): 88. doi:10.1016/S0960-9822(00)00023-3. ISSN 0960-9822. 
  31. ^ Loose ends from Current Biology (1997) ISBN 1 85922 325 7
  32. ^ A Life in Science (2001) ISBN 0-9540278-0-9
  33. ^ Sydney Brenner tells his life story at Web of Stories
  34. ^ "Sydney Brenner interviewed by Alan Macfarlane, 2007-08-23 (film)". 
  35. ^ Sydney Brenner's seminar: "What Genomes Can Tell Us About the Past"
  36. ^ Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics: the Sydney Brenner papers
  37. ^ "2002 Nobel Prize". 
  38. ^ "Dan David Prize laureate 2002: Sydney Brenner". 
  39. ^ 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. 
  40. ^ A*STAR Corporate Site - Awards - NSTM - Winner Citation for his distinguished and strategic contributions to the development of Singapore’s scientific capability and culture, particularly in the biomedical sciences sector.
  41. ^ "Sydney Brenner Institute for Molecular Bioscience". University of the Witwatersrand. 
  42. ^ "Loose Ends" : Collection of Loose Ends/False Starts columns by 'Uncle Syd.' from January 1994 to December 2000 (Current Biology, 1997) ISBN 1859223257
  43. ^ 'My Life in Science', with Lewis Wolpert, edited by Errol C. Friedberg and Eleanor Lawrence, BioMed Central 2001, 199pp ISBN 0-9540278-0-9

Further reading[edit]

[citation needed]