Sydney Brenner was a Jewish South African biologist and co-recipient of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Medicine.
Brenner was born on January 13, 1927, in Germinston, South Africa. At only the age of 15, Brenner attended the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg to study medicine and, in 1942, began studying Physics, Chemistry, Botany and Zoology. Brenner remained at Witwatersrand to obtain an Honors degree and then an M.Sc. In 1951, he received the degrees of MB BCh. In October 1952, Brenner arrived in Oxford to complete a Ph.D. in the Physical Chemistry Laboratory. After finishing the Ph.D., he returned to South Africa to open his own research laboratory.
In 1953, he visited Cambridge, England, and saw the model of the double-helix structure of DNA constructed by Francis Crick and James Watson. In 1956, he returned to England to join the Medical Research Council Unit in Cambridge. He left Cambridge in 1976 to join the Salk Institute where he pursued an entirely new career in neuroscience. In 1977, he was appointed Director of the MRC Laboratory. In 1995, he founded The Molecular Sciences Institute with a gift from the Philip Morris Company. Brenner retired from the Institute in 2000 and, in 2001, was appointed a Distinguished Professor in the Salk Institute in La Jolla where he rejoined Francis Crick.
He made seminal contributions to the emerging field of molecular biology in the 1960s, notably in the elucidation of the triplet code of protein translation through the Crick, Brenner et al. experiment of 1961, which discovered frameshift mutations. This observation provided insight into how genetic informaton regulates the death of individual cells.
Brenner then turned his sights 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. The title of his Nobel lecture on December 2002, "Nature's Gift to Science," is an homage to this modest nematode. Brenner believed choosing the right organism to study was as important as addressing the right problem.
Brenner died on April 5, 2019, at the age of 92. The obituary in the Wall Street Journal recalled an email he received from a student in China asking him how to win a Nobel Prize. Brenner responded that he should “‘choose the right place for your work with generous sponsors to support you,’ find excellent colleagues and work hard.”
Photo: OIST from Onna Village, Japan, Creative Commons License