A revolutionary Jewish biologist who won a Nobel Prize in 2002 for his work at Cambridge has died, leaving the scientific world mourning the loss of one of the 20th century’s great minds.
Born in South Africa in 1927 to a Lithuanian father and a Latvian mother, Sydney Brenner’s beginnings were modest. His father, a cobbler, will illiterate, but at the age of three or four, Brenner taught himself to read from newspapers, which were used instead of tablecloths, “by looking at letters and finding out sounds”.
He later joked that he only ended up at medical school aged 15 “to escape” and got his degree aged 18, writing his first paper that year. A scholarship to Oxford soon followed, and he went on to make some of the most significant discoveries in the history of biology, transforming our understanding of how life works at the molecular level.
In 1953, Brenner met Francis Crick and Jim Watson just hours after they first discovered DNA’s double helix structure. The key question this posed to this small group was: how did the DNA in the gene enable the cell to produce the protein? In other words, how did the sequence in a gene determine the sequence in a protein chain?
Brenner set to work on the question that day. He knew proteins – hormones, enzymes etc – build and maintain our bodies, and discovered that the letters in a DNA sequence determine which amino acids the ribosomes should use to assemble the proteins.
He also established the role played by the molecule RNA in carrying the “code of life” held in the DNA sequence to the ribosome protein factories in cells.
Crick and Brenner worked together at Cambridge for 20 years, their work marked by “a series of brilliant, sudden insights,” according to peers. He worked with 1mm long nematode worms to investigate animal and neural development, identifying genes for important functions and even discovering a whole new set of proteins in the process.
Awards and honours followed, and he lived most of his life in Ely, Cambridgeshire, but travelled extensively, applying his rigour and imagination to help found scientific institutes in California, Japan and latterly Singapore, where he passed away on Friday, aged 92.