Sydney Brenner, Nobel laureate and genetics pioneer, dies at 92

April 16, 2019

Sydney Brenner, PhD, a pioneer in genetics, molecular biology and neuroscience who collaborated closely with Scripps Research scientists, died April 5 at the age of 92.

Brenner devoted his career to conducting groundbreaking basic research, making seminal discoveries about how the genetic code is expressed to produce proteins and establishing the roundworm C. elegans as a critical model organism in science, which laid the groundwork for decoding the human genome. His many contributions to molecular biology led to his being co-awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002.

“Simply put, he was one of the greatest minds of the 20th Century,” says Kim Janda, PhD, the Ely R. Callaway, Jr. Professor of Chemistry Professor at Scripps Research, who worked closely with Brenner.

Born in South Africa, Brenner studied at Oxford University and was one of the first people to see the DNA model created by James Watson, PhD, and Francis Crick, PhD. “The double helix was a revelatory experience; for me everything fell into place, and my future scientific life was decided there and then,” Brenner wrote.

He later worked closely with Crick, sharing an office with him for 20 years at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge, UK. Crick and Brenner showed that DNA is a triplet code, where groups of three DNA letters specify each link in the amino acid chains that serve as the backbones of proteins. Brenner coined the term “codon” to refer to these triplet groups and found that certain codons—called “nonsense” or “stop” codons—marked the end of translation, the final step in the process by which proteins are produced based on genetic code. Brenner also co-discovered messenger RNA (mRNA), a critical intermediary in the expression of genes into proteins.

He then turned his attention to studying a tiny roundworm, Caenorhabditis elegans, better known as C. elegans, and established it as a primary model organism for studying the genome, nervous system and developmental biology. With colleagues, he made numerous advances in studying C. elegans, including finding that cells are programmatically killed during development, which led to the discovery of programmed cell death by H. Robert Horvitz, PhD. For their achievements in this area, Brenner, Horvitz and John Sullivan, PhD, shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002.

In the early 1990s, Brenner moved to San Diego and began a fellowship at Scripps Research, where he collaborated closely with Richard Lerner, PhD, then director of the institute. In 1992, Brenner and Lerner published a theoretical paper introducing the concept of DNA-encoded libraries, a technology for using DNA barcodes to organize large libraries of chemical compounds. Working with Scripps Research professor Kim Janda, Brenner and Lerner implemented one of these DNA-indexed chemical libraries in 1993. The technique has since become a powerful and widespread research method in academia and the pharmaceutical industry.

In California, Brenner also was appointed a distinguished professor at the Salk Institute in San Diego and started the non-profit Molecular Sciences Institute in Berkeley. Extensive obituaries on Brenner were published in the New York Times, The Washington Post, Nature and The Guardian, among many other news outlets that celebrated his scientific feats and lifetime accomplishments following the news of his death.

He is survived by his children Belinda, Carla and Stefan.

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