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Sydney Brenner, geneticist and Nobel laureate, dies aged 92

15 April 2019
Appeared in BioNews 995

Professor Sydney Brenner, a pioneering molecular biologist and Nobel prize winner, has died at the age of 92. 

Professor Brenner was instrumental in establishing the tiny, transparent nematode worm C. elegans as a model organism. The worm is routinely used in labs all over the world and has contributed to insight into a wide range of diseases and molecular mechanisms. 

In 2002, Professor Brenner shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with Professor Robert Horvitz and the late Professor John Sulston (see BioNews 941) for his work using C. elegans to understand how genes regulate cell death and division. 

As well as developing a new model organism, Professor Brenner made huge contributions to the field of genetics and helped discover the role of messenger RNA. Working alongside scientists including Dr Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, Professor Brenner deciphered how DNA triplets of letters, called codons, encode amino acids – the basis of proteins. 

Born in 1972 in South Africa, he won a scholarship to medical school at the age of 15. His extraordinary research career spanned 70 years and several continents. Much of his early research took place in the UK, initially at the University of Oxford studying for a PhD. Later he was director of the world-renowned Medical Research Council's Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge.

Professor Brenner's contributions to molecular biology extended beyond his own discoveries. He was influential in the founding of several leading research institutes, including the Molecular Sciences Institute in California, as well as the European Molecular Biology Organisation. 

He was also a key figure in increasing medical research capacity in Singapore, establishing the nation's first major scientific research institute, the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, in 1985. Later, he contributed to establishing Singapore's Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR). He was still scientific adviser to the chairman and head of the A*STAR Molecular Engineering Laboratory at the time of his death. He won many accolades for his contribution to medical research in Singapore, including becoming the country's first honorary citizen in 2003. 

Former A*STAR chair and long-term collaborator Philip Yeo told the Straits Times: 'It's the end of an era. He was Yoda to a generation of young scientists.' 

Professor Ronald Evans of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, said: 'Sydney Brenner was a luminary, a 'once-in-a-lifetime' scientist. We at the Salk Institute were entertained and enthralled by his wit and wisdom... He will be remembered in perpetuity for his brilliant discoveries that ushered in a new era of science and a new generation of scientists.'

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