Sydney Brenner Biography


Birthday: January 13, 1927 (Capricorn)

Born In: Germiston, Transvaal, Union of South Africa

Sydney Brenner was a South African molecular biologist whose path-breaking work on programmed cell death won him the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2002 (along with H. Robert Horvitz and John E. Sulston).  Born to immigrant parents, Brenner joined the University of the Witwatersrand at 15. He completed his PhD from the University of Oxford, obtained his MBBCh degree, and worked with the Medical Research Council in England. He established the Molecular Sciences Institute, delivered lectures at prestigious institutes such as the Salk Institute in California, and wrote scientific columns. However, his most significant work was his pioneering research on methods of studying cell development. He made the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans the model organism for such studies for its ease of use. He received numerous awards and accolades in his lifetime. He died in Singapore at the age of 92.

Quick Facts

Also Known As: Uncle Syd

Died At Age: 92


Spouse/Ex-: May Covitz​​ (m. 1952)

father: Morris Brenner

mother: Lena Brenner

Born Country: South Africa

Biologists Molecular Biologists

Died on: April 5, 2019

place of death: Singapore

More Facts

education: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, King's College Cambridge, Germiston High School, EXETER COLLEGE OXFORD, University of Oxford, University of California - Berkeley, University of the Witwatersrand

Childhood & Early Life

Sydney Brenner was born on January 13, 1927, in Germiston, Transvaal (modern-day Gauteng), Union of South Africa, to Jewish immigrants Leah (née Blecher) and Morris Brenner.

His father was a Lithuanian cobbler who had migrated to South Africa in 1910. His mother was from Riga, Latvia, and had moved to South Africa in 1922. He grew up with a sister named Phyllis. Brenner was also known as “Uncle Syd.”

He attended the Germiston High School and the University of the Witwatersrand. He joined the university at 15. In his second year, the authorities realized he was too young to qualify for medicine practice at the end of his 6-year medical course. He was thus allowed to get a BS degree in anatomy and physiology.

For the next 2 years, he completed his honors degree and then obtained an MSc degree, while also working as a part-time laboratory technician. Joel Mandelstam, Robert Broom, and Raymond Dart were some of his teachers back then.

Brenner’s master’s thesis was on cytogenetics. He obtained his Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery (MBBCh) degree in 1951.

In 1851, Brenner was awarded an Exhibition Scholarship by the Royal Commission for the Exhibition, which let him obtain a DPhil degree from the University of Oxford, as a postgraduate student of Exeter College, Oxford. Cyril Hinshelwood was his supervisor. His thesis was titled The Physical Chemistry of Cell Processes: A Study of Bacteriophage Resistance in Escherichia Coli, Strain B and was completed in 1954.

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Career as a Scientist

After obtaining his DPhil, Brenner joined his postdoctoral research at the University of California, Berkeley (UCB). For the next 20 years, he focused on his research at the Cambridge-based Laboratory of Molecular Biology.

In April 1953, Brenner, along with Jack Dunitz, Leslie Orgel, Dorothy Hodgkin, and Beryl M. Oughton, became one of the first people in the world to have a glimpse of the model of the DNA structure discovered by Francis Crick and James Watson.

Back then, Brenner and the other researchers were working at the chemistry department of the University of Oxford.

Brenner later worked with Crick in the Cavendish Laboratory of the University of Cambridge and the Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) of the Medical Research Council (MRC).

Brenner was the first to state and prove that all overlapping genetic coding sequences were impossible. This insight led Francis Crick to propound the concept of the “adaptor,” or what is now known as the "transfer RNA (tRNA).”

The central tenet of molecular biology, which claims there is physical separation between the anticodon and the amino acid of a tRNA, was laid down. This implies that any information in the DNA is transferred from nucleic acid to protein and never in the other direction.

Following this discovery, Brenner established the concept of a messenger RNA, based on the research of Larry Astrachan and Elliot "Ken" Volkin.

In 1961, Brenner showed the triplet nature of the code of protein through an experiment with Francis Crick, Richard J. Watts-Tobin, and Leslie Barnett.

They found frameshift mutations and could thus throw light on the nature of the genetic code. Later, Leslie Barnett assisted Sydney Brenner to set up his own laboratory in Singapore.

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Along with George Pieczenik, Brenner used TRAC to make the first computer matrix analysis of nucleic acids. Brenner then teamed up with Klug, Crick, and Pieczenik, to write a path-breaking paper on the origin of protein synthesis.

Brenner then established the Caenorhabditis elegans, a 1-millimeter-long roundworm that starts life with only 1,090 cells, as the base organism for any research on animal development. Brenner had chosen this soil worm because it was easy to farm in bulk, was transparent, was inexpensive, and allowed scientists to study cell divisions under a microscope.

His research on programmed cell death, or apoptosis, earned him the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002. He shared the prize with John Sulston and H. Robert Horvitz. His Nobel lecture, delivered in December 2002, was titled "Nature's Gift to Science.”

Other Accomplishments

In 1996, Brenner established the Molecular Sciences Institute in Berkeley, California.

Brenner had joined the Salk Institute in California in 1976. As of 2015, he was part of the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, the Janelia Farm Research Campus, the Singapore Biomedical Research Council, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

He became the president of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology in August 2005. He was part of the Board of Scientific Governors of The Scripps Research Institute and also served as a professor of genetics at the institute.

Brenner’s biography, written by Errol Friedberg, was published in 2010. He was a regular writer of the column Loose Ends in the journal Current Biology. This column’s popularity led to the publication of a compilation of its contents, Loose Ends from Current Biology. Brenner also wrote a paperback named A Life in Science.

In 2017, he co-arranged a lecture series that covered the Big Bang to the present, in Singapore. Intellectuals such as W. Brian Arthur, Svante Pääbo, and Jack Szostak were part of the series. In 2018, the lectures were compiled into a science book named Sydney Brenner’s 10-on-10: The Chronicles of Evolution.

He also delivered four lectures on the history of molecular biology and its influence on neuroscience, which were released as the book In the Spirit of Science: Lectures by Sydney Brenner on DNA, Worms and Brains.

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Brenner also established the "American Plan" and the "European Plan,” which were alternative models explaining how the brain cells decide on their neural functions.

The European Plan (also known as the British Plan) stated that the function of cells was determined by their genetic origins. The American Plan, however, stated that a cell's function is decided by the function of its neighbors after its migration. Later research has proved that most species follow a combination of these two methods to pass on information to new cells.

Personal Life & Death

On December 6, 1952, Brenner married a South African lady named May (Covitz) Balkind. May was divorced and had a son, Jonathan, from her previous marriage.

Brenner had initially met May at the Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, where she was a psychology student.

May later moved to London with her son, to pursue a doctoral degree in psychology at the University of London. When Brenner later moved to Oxford, they began dating. May later became an educational psychologist.

Brenner and May had their first child, Stefan, in October 1953. They had two more children, Belinda and Carla. May died in 2010.

Brenner died on April 5, 2019, in Singapore, at the age of 92.

Awards, Achievements & Legacy

Apart from the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002, Sydney Brenner received many awards and accolades in his lifetime. He was made a Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, in 1959. He became an EMBO member in 1964.

In 1965, he became a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) of London. In 1986, he became a Member of the Order of the Companions of Honour. The following year, he received the Genetics Society of America Medal.

In 1997, he had visited Singapore's National Orchid Garden, following which the Dendrobium Sydney Brenner was named in his honor.

A nematode related to the C. elegans was named Caenorhabditis brenneri, in Brenner’s honor.

In 2006, Brenner was awarded the National Science and Technology Medal by the Agency for Science, Technology, and Research.

In 2008, the Sydney Brenner Institute for Molecular Bioscience (SBIMB) at the University of the Witwatersrand was named in his honor.

In 2019, a new species of bobtail squid was named Euprymna brenneri, in Brenner’s honor.

See the events in life of Sydney Brenner in Chronological Order

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