An Interview with Ann Varela and Manuel Varela: Sydney Brenner—From South Africa to Cambridge to the Nobel Prize

Oct 11, 2020 by

Sydney Brenner

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Sydney Brenner was born around 1927—in South Africa—what do we know about his early life?

Nobel Laureate Sydney Brenner is known for his pioneering studies on messenger RNA, the genetic code, and the nematode worm’s neurobiological genetics. Brenner was born in Germiston, South Africa in 1927 on January 13. Brenner’s parents were Jewish immigrants. His father, Morris, lived in Lithuania until his immigration in 1910. He was employed as a cobbler. In 1922, Brenner’s mother, Leah Blecher, emigrated from Riga, Latvia. Brenner and his family lived in the back of his father’s cobbler shop.He learned to read at an early age and was invited to start kindergarten at the age of five. The teacher, Miss Walkinshaw, was a customer of his father. Brenner was able to complete the curriculum for three years of primary school in just one year. So, at the young age of six, Brenner began the fourth grade.

Brenner attended Germiston High School and graduated in December 1941 before his fifteenth birthday. After graduation, Brenner was a voracious reader and studied various topics at the Public Library in Germiston. His first topic was chemistry, and he eventually gathered enough lab equipment to do chemical experiments. Brenner used small quantities of chemicals purchased from a pharmacy supply house. He soon graduated to biochemistry and tried to discover what gave flowers their distinctive colors. Brenner found that the pH of the soil affected the flower pigments.

Brenner’s attendance at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg to study medicine was made possible by getting an endowment of 60 pounds per year from the local town council. It was at Witwatersrand that Brenner began his studies in Botany, Chemistry, Physics, and Zoology. Meanwhile, Brenner lived at his family’s home, riding his bicycle daily, weather being inconsequential, to the train station to get to the university. He carried along with sandwiches for lunch and returned home for supper each day.

For his second year of college, Brenner moved to the Medical School and took courses in anatomy and Physiology. These courses were decidedly responsible for Brenner’s deepened curiosity in cells and their function.

Because he would be too young to practice medicine after his medical studies, Brenner made a judicious decision to continue his studies for an additional year of training in a Medical B.Sc. course in Anatomy and Physiology. Brenner worked as a laboratory technician to remain for another two years in an Honors degree and then an M.Sc. program.

Brenner won a scholarship in 1952 to study at Oxford’s Department of Physical Chemistry. In 1953, he visited Cambridge, England, and saw the model of the double-helix structure of DNA constructed by James Watson and Francis Crick. Brenner took his Ph.D. from the University of Oxford in1954. Brenner’s thesis title was, “The physical chemistry of cell processes: a study of bacteriophage resistance in Escherichia coli, strain B.”

2) His master’s thesis was in cytogenetics—what exactly is this, and why is it important to his career?

Because of Brenner’s young age, he was not permitted to see patients in medical school. Thus, he decided to study genetics and obtain a master’s degree. He recalled having had an interest in chromosome and gene structure using histological methods in the laboratory. After his senior year in college and partaking in the Honors program after undergraduate school, Brenner had read an influential book, which inspired him to learn about genetics. The book, titled “The Cell in Development and Heredity,” was written by Professor Edmund B. Wilson. Brenner had learned from Wilson’s book that the center of heredity was geared around living organisms’ chromosomes. Thus, Brenner chose to combine heredity, histology, and the structures of genes and chromosomes into the research area that most closely fit each of them. Therefore, Brenner chose a subject called cytogenetics. The discipline of cytogenetics deals with the study of heredity from the standpoint of chromosome structure and function.

Unfortunately, Brenner at first discovered that no experts in cytogenetics were to be found in South Africa. Further, Brenner would turn out to be the first fledging scientist to delve into the specific field in all of South Africa. First, he attempted to teach himself cytogenetics by reading the scientific literature on the topic, but completely independently. One of these had been a 1932 book authored by Cyril Darlington called “Recent Advances in Cytology.” Another book that caught Brenner’s eye was entitled “The Handling of Chromosomes,” first written by Darlington and possibly LaCour, with later editions authored by G. Allen and Unwin, in 1962.

Though these books were extraordinarily difficult to comprehend, Brenner was, nevertheless, able to pick up on a useful laboratory method, which he adopted and invoked for his master’s thesis project. Knowing that the shrews, a tiny animal by the genus Elephantulus, were a common inhabitant of South Africa at the time, Brenner reasoned that he would have ready access to them as laboratory subjects. He studied the chromosome number in the South African shrew. In so doing, Brenner became an expert in the area of cytogenetics. Brenner completed the thesis project and published the work in the scientific journal Nature.

Brenner would learn afterward that he had gotten the chromosome number wrong! He had counted only half of the total chromosome complement. Brenner and the rest of the scientific world had been unaware of the haploid nature of the genome’s chromosome content in sex cells—Brenner had used the shrews’ testis tissue, the sex cells, as a source for the chromosome preparations.

Nevertheless, the graduate school experience in the master’s program had greatly excited Brenner. He thoroughly enjoyed the countless hours in the lab at night and weekends, participating in many discussions of a scientific nature, “talking science,” with his fellow graduate students and laboratory-based visiting scientists. Consequently, Brenner became enamored with science. The experience would begin a lifetime of “loving science” that, he later related, both his mother and wife, May Woolf Balkind, never completely understood.

3) His D. Phil. was from the University of Oxford—Exeter—What did Brenner study?

Upon the advice of several mentors, including an acquaintance and influential teachers during his medical studies, Brenner initially chose to study biochemistry but ended up studying bacteriophage biology for his thesis and would soon convert to DNA studies. The acquaintance was Conrad Waddington, who was a visiting embryologist. Waddington had informed Brenner that Cambridge was where interesting biochemistry was going on. However, an inquiry by Brenner to A.C. Chinball at Cambridge was ignored. In contrast, Dr. Raymond Arthur Dart was a renowned paleontologist. He had discovered a famous but somewhat controversial skull fossil from a specimen called the “Taung child” with the scientific name of Australopithecus africanus. Dart’s influence on Brenner would spark a lifelong interest in problems involving nature and evolution. Dr. Wilford LeGros Clark was an Oxford anatomy professor who had invited Brenner to study under his tutelage—Brenner had kindly refused the offer, as Dart had encouraged him to finish medical school and pursue biochemistry later.

Meanwhile, Brenner was not particularly fond of his medical studies, especially when visiting patients in the wards. In one incident, he failed his oral examination of a patient. Brenner was supposed to recognize acetone from a diabetic patient’s breath, but instead, reported the smell of toothpaste. The failure set Brenner back a few months late as he had to repeat the course to obtain his medical bachelor’s degree.

Another influential figure in Brenner’s scientific career was Humphrey Raikes, who was at the University of Witwatersrand. Raikes advised Brenner to work under Sir Cyril Hinshelwood, a physical chemistry faculty at Oxford. Hinshelwood, Brenner’s graduate advisor, was studying bacterial drug resistance. Thus, Hinshelwood suggested that Brenner conduct a study on phage resistance in bacteria. But Brenner was more interested in learning phage lysogeny, a process in which the phage genome incorporates into the bacterial genome, and the bacteria grow normally without phage-induced lysis. Nevertheless, Brenner commenced his graduate work, as suggested by Hinshelwood.

In his memoir, Brenner reported that part of his graduate thesis work consisted largely of reiterating the classic phage fluctuation experiments of Salvador Luria and Max Delbrück. As did Luria and Delbrück, Brenner found that phage resistance in bacteria was due to bacterial mutation.

During his phage studies in graduate school, Brenner met Jack Dunitz, who was a lab scientist in the laboratory of Dr. Dorothy Hodgkin and who knew Linus Pauling from his Caltech days. Dunitz and Brenner had many discussions about DNA. During these conversations, Brenner learned from Dunitz about Jerry Donohue, an acquaintance of Francis Crick, who would soon announce with Jim Watson and Rosalind Franklin about a proposed molecular structure for DNA.

According to Brenner’s autobiography, Donohue once asked why he drew the nucleotide structures in the so-called enol tautomeric configuration, rather than the correct keto tautomer. Brenner replied that his drawing reflected molecular structures repeatedly shown in the textbooks—the textbooks then had been inaccurate. A popular story is that Donohue pointed out to Watson and Crick that they were also using the incorrect tautomeric configurations for the DNA bases. Consequently, when the correct tautomer was used, Crick and Watson solved the structure soon afterward.

From his associations with Watson, Crick, and Donohue, the newly minted Ph.D. graduate, Dr. Sydney Brenner would be interested in DNA, especially when it came down to the genetic coding problem.

After acquiring his Ph. D., Brenner traveled to the United States, touring laboratories, including Cold Spring Harbor in New York. He once again made the acquaintance of Watson and Crick. Brenner drove across the United States with Watson to Cal Tech, where he researched for a brief period at the Virus Laboratory in Berkeley. Then, Brenner traveled to Washington, D.C. Brenner, met up with Francis Crick again in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, Cold Spring Harbor, and also in Cambridge 1954 while in route to South Africa. The Carnegie Corporation Fellowship funded these trips.

While in South Africa, Brenner set up a laboratory in the Department of Physiology in the Medical School. His research concentrated on finding a bacteriophage system, which might be used to solve the genetic code. Crick hired Brenner in 1956 to study bacteria and bacteriophages at the University of Cambridge. Brenner remained at Cambridge until 1976.

Brenner became a member of the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology until 1986. Brenner also joined the Salk Institute in 1976. He was bestowed with a distinguished research professorship at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. In 1992, Brenner was employed at the Scripps Research Institute. In 1996, Brenner founded the California-based Molecular Sciences Institute. Brenner was the first president of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology in Japan. From this effort, Singapore became the home to a major research institute, The Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB).

4) After receiving his D. Phil., he did some postdoctoral work at the University of California in Berkeley. What did Brenner study or research there?

At Berkeley, Brenner spent eight weeks studying phage viruses in the laboratory of Dr. Gunther Stent, who had been a postdoctoral fellow under Max Delbrück. The first study in which Stent and Brenner worked together involves analyzing the so-called one-step growth curve in bacteria by phage infection. The method provides data on the so-called “burst size” of a single bacterial cell. That is, data are provided on the number of phages that are produced from infection and lysis of just one bacterial cell.

Stent and Brenner studied the bacterial host called Bacillus megaterium and its relationship to phage C, a virus that specifically targeted the bacterium. When the bacteria are treated with lysozyme, the enzyme cleaves the peptidoglycan layer on the cell wall. Thus, the lysozyme treatment produces a “cell wall-less” protoplast of the bacterium. In the protoplasts, Stent and Brenner found that the burst size by phage was diminished. They learned that the bacteria were poor hosts for viral infection without cell wall components, lacking a dedicated phage receptor. They published the result together in the journal called Biochimica et Biophysica Acta, in 1955.

5) Twenty years of Brenner’s life were spent at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. What do we know about his contributions there?

Brenner had moved to Cambridge in 1956 and began a tremendously fruitful collaboration with Francis Crick. They shared an office and studied the DNA coding problem. The two scientists first met at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA, during the summer of 1954.

At Cambridge, one of Brenner’s scientific contributions was his invention of the word “codon.” The codon term refers to a set of three nucleotide bases in a row that specify an amino acid residue or a “stop” message in the DNA code. Such a molecular code was referred to as a triplet because three bases in a row relayed the coded message. See Figure 16.

Figure 16. Messenger RNA and codons without punctuation, as discovered by Brenner.

Another major contribution by Brenner was his discovery that the codon message was non-overlapping. Furthermore, Brenner found that the triplet codon did not have “punctuation” in the sense that it had separations between the codons. See Figure 17.


Figure 17. This graphic shows how the sequence of an RNA consists of triplets of nucleic acids that translate.

Another major contribution, one might say his most important one, was the postulate that introduced a novel form of RNA, called messenger RNA (mRNA), resulting from a collaboration with François Jacob and Matthew Meselson. The mRNA concept became one of the central highlights as an intermediate in genetic information flow from DNA to protein. The mRNA concept provided a conduit between DNA and the ribosome, which made protein.

The experiments that led to the investigators’ discoveries involved bacteriophages. First, they examined ribosomal RNA (rRNA) produced by phage infection and found no new rRNA was made. Yet, they found a high rate of protein synthesis. There was, however, a small amount of RNA being produced during infection of Escherichia coli infection by phage, as observed by Elliot Volkin and Lazarus Astrachan in 1956. Strikingly, no one had seemed to pick up on the messenger RNA concept when it was found that the RNA produced resembled DNA in its base composition. At the time, it was inaccurately thought by many that RNA was merely a template to make more DNA for phage production.

The insight that the Volkin-Astrachan RNA was of the messenger type remained a secret for four additional years, until Brenner, Crick, François Jacob, and Jacques Monod considered the 1956 RNA results during a meeting on Good Friday in 1960. In attendance at the historic meeting were Ole Maaloe, Leslie Orgel, and Alan and Susan Garen, a husband and wife team. Monod had presented data showing increased β-galactosidase enzyme production when induced by allolactose when bacterial cells were grown in lactose sugar. The β-galactosidase was needed to metabolize the added lactose. Monod had revealed the results of the famous PaJaMo experiment, completed by Arthur Pardee and Monica Riley, and named after the Arthur Pardee (Pa), François Jacob (Ja), and Jacque Monod (Mo), who had conceived the experimental design. Radioactive bacteria were mated with recipients who then produced the β-galactosidase for a few minutes and then destroyed the gene. Once the DNA was gone, the biosynthesis ceased, too. Therefore, the data strongly indicated that no rRNA was responsible as a stable intermediate molecule.

Upon thinking of the PaJaMo data and remembering the RNA data of Volkin and Astrachan, Sydney Brenner had a history-changing revelation. If rRNA was not the intermediary, then the Volkin-Astrachan RNA must be the messenger RNA. Furthermore, the mRNA must be short-lived. But if rRNA was stable, then mRNA must be present, too. The new hypothesis, therefore, was that mRNA was combined with rRNA to produce new proteins.

The next afternoon and later that evening, during a party hosted by Crick at his home (called the Golden Helix), Brenner, Monod, and Crick designed the experiment necessary to test their hypothesis. They needed to show that mRNA joined rRNA and that the association enhanced protein production. They would evaluate their new idea by using bacteriophages and host bacteria.

They detected new RNA of the messenger type using radioactive labels and then showed that it ended up at the ribosomes, where rRNA was located. Furthermore, they demonstrated that no new rRNA was made, consistent with the results of the PaJaMo experiment. Unfortunately, they had encountered a major problem along the way. Their ribosome preparations kept degrading, and Brenner and colleagues were increasingly despairing about it.

Then, one day while the scientists took a break from the monotony by going to the beach, a solution came to Brenner—it was the magnesium! He had to explain this outburst to his fellow beachgoers. The stabilizing effect of magnesium upon the ribosomes was compromised by the abundance of cesium used to prepare the ribosomes. If so, they merely needed to add more magnesium. Their problem could be solved if they just added extra magnesium.

The beachgoers ran back to the Caltech laboratory. They added as much magnesium as they dared and repeated the ribosome preparation except with the extra magnesium. One terrible incident, however, occurred that day. Jacob was so nervous about the work’s ramifications that he accidentally spilled highly radioactive phosphorous into their water bath! They hid the radioactive water bath behind a soda machine in the basement and forgot about it. Years later, Brenner returned to visit Caltech and looked behind the soda machine—the radioactive water bath was gone.

On the same day that the radioactive accident occurred, the investigators had another problem. The ultra-centrifuge machine broke! That piece of equipment was needed to make the ribosomes with the extra magnesium. Hence, they had to transfer all of the radioactive centrifuge test tubes to another centrifuge rotor and move the entire operation to another cold-room (a refrigerated room) to use another centrifuge. They then had to painstakingly transfer small drops of the radioactive solution to new centrifuge test tubes to fit the new rotor and finish the centrifugation.

As they waited for the scintillation counters to measure the radiation, they grew increasingly nervous. If they were correct that there was such a thing as mRNA and that mRNA joined with ribosomes, the radioactivity levels should rise and then drop. Brenner recalls that day they stood before the scintillation counter, screaming at the machine for the radioactive numbers to “go down!” If the radiation stayed high, they would be wrong about messenger RNA. They got a nice single peak of radiation, indicating that no new ribosomes were made with the mRNA assembled to the pre-existing ribosomes. Their hypothesis was correct: mRNA was a real entity.

Brenner, Jacob, and Meselson were set to publish their historical work in late 1960 but elected to wait for Jim Watson to finish his work showing an RNA fraction bound to ribosomes. The publication languished until May of 1961 when it finally appeared in print in Nature.

6) Brenner was one of the first to SEE a model of the DNA structure—how did this impact his life and career?

In his delightful autobiography titled “A Life in Science,” Sydney Brenner would describe how he and a select few others would see the DNA structure’s original molecular model assembled by James Watson and Francis Crick. As mentioned above, Brenner had been good friends with Jerry Donahue and Jack Dunitz, both of whom were colleagues of Crick and Watson at Cambridge. One day Dunitz informed Brenner that Watson and Crick had built a convincing model for the structure of DNA. Thus, in April of 1953, a visiting delegation composed of Brenner, Dunitz, and Leslie Orgel from Oxford made the trek by car to the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge to view the DNA’s historical structural model. They would see the proposed structure before the world knew of its existence, as the classic Nature paper by Watson and Crick was not yet published. The occasion would mark the first time that Brenner and Crick would meet in person.

By the time that day, when Brenner, Dunitz, and Orgel arrived at Watson and Crick’s tiny office where the famous DNA structure was housed, Crick had been delivering increasingly longwinded speeches describing the model. Crick even launched into the molecular biological implications of the double helix for DNA synthesis, the contents of which would eventually end up in a second paper, also in Nature, by Crick and Watson and published later in 1953. The visitation by the Oxford audience would be recorded as having a “peek at our big molecular model of the double helix” by Watson in his memoirs titled “Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science.” In Watson’s classic, “The Double Helix,” he would relate that Crick’s vocal pitch and enthusiasm would increase with each new verbal tour of the DNA model. Brenner would later comment on how excited he had become about DNA. Brenner would later make enormous contributions to the field of molecular biology.

7) Brenner made many basic, foundational contributions to the field of molecular biology—can you give us just a few?

Dr. Sydney Brenner began a series of scientific contributions to molecular biology starting in 1959 when he and R.W. Horne developed a new method studying the tobacco mosaic virus (TMV). The TMV microbe consists of an RNA genome surrounded by a protein shell. Horne and Brenner sprayed a phosphotungstate onto purified TMV and examined the viruses under the electron microscope. They discovered that the phosphotungstate solution stained everything in the TMV sample except the nucleic acid and protein, leaving behind an image that appeared like a ghost, clearly outlining a silhouette of TMV’s helical rod shape. The method is more popularly known as negative staining.

As described above, Brenner, François Jacob, and Matthew Meselson in 1961 provided the first direct evidence for the existence of RNA as playing a messenger role for ribosomes to make proteins. Many molecular biology historians attribute this work as the discovery of mRNA, which turned out to play a vital role in the biological functions that are central to life itself.

Equally as important, Brenner would participate in the genetic code’s cracking, a monumental scientific discovery. Working with Leslie Barnett, R.J. Watts-Tobin, and Francis Crick in 1961, they formulated the hypothesis that the genetic code was composed of the triplet-base sequence, called a codon, specifying the cipher for amino acids. As mentioned above, Brenner would coin the term “codon.” The code was degenerate, meaning that more than one codon could decide a given amino acid during translation. They also found that the genetic code was non-overlapping and must be read by the ribosome from a fixed starting site to make protein.

In 1963, Brenner worked with Crick and François Cuzin. They postulated that during bacterial growth, the two daughter cells separate, and genomic DNA attaches to the cell wall such that newly replicated genomic DNA molecules end up in their proper bacterial progeny. The attached genomes assured that the next generation of bacteria received its DNA complement. The postulate would be supported by direct electron microscopic pictures showing attached genomes in dividing bacteria by Antoinette and Jacob Ryter.

Later in 1963, Brenner, Jacob, and Cuzin would postulate the so-called “replicon” model for the mechanism of DNA replication. They defined the replicon’s nature as an element of DNA that undergoes synthesis to reproduce a copy of itself. They speculated that such replicons could be regulated from the start, and, hence, they reasoned that such controlled genetic elements needed a site that permitted the initiation of DNA replication. Today, we know these controllable initiation sites on replicons as “origins of replication.” These so-called ori sites on replicons are frequently the starting points for the initiation of replication.

Each of these discoveries by Brenner represents fundamental knowledge in molecular biology. These concepts are a mainstay in modern cell and molecular biology textbooks. However, the Nobel Prize would ultimately go to Brenner, H. Robert Horvitz, and John Sulston in physiology or medicine in 2002 for a completely different research line.

Brenner’s Nobel work involved an organism seemingly far removed from bacteriophages and bacteria. He would study worms. One critically relevant worm used in laboratories is known as Caenorhabditis elegans. See Figure 18. In later years, the nematode would be known as “Brenner’s worm.” He had come across these worms in the course of his reading of the scientific literature. He noticed that the estimate of the number of cells that constitute the worm was relatively small.


Figure 18. Caenorhabditis elegans, adult hermaphrodite.

Thinking big, he decided that he would map the physical presence of every single nerve cell of the worm! Brenner reasoned that he could readily find mutant worms with defects in its nervous system by observing their abnormal behaviors. The mutant worms could easily be monitored for alterations in movement, eating, or mating behaviors.

Brenner and his laboratory personnel exposed the worms to mutagenic chemicals to enhance the probability of finding interesting mutants. Almost immediately, they came across one such worm mutant, and it would become a famous one. The worm mutant was denoted as E1, for the name of the mutagenic chemical ethyl methane sulphonate (EMS) that they used in the laboratory. Very soon after the discovery of E1, the Brenner group had amassed hundreds of E-type worm mutants.

They kept careful records of each new mutant as they appeared and cultured them to determine whether the mutant phenotype appeared in the next generation. If so, the mutant would be archived by slow freezing and preserved for later study. Next, Brenner tried adding chemical agents in an attempt to cure the mutants of their faulty behavior. Though one drug, in particular, called tetramisole, paralyzed the worms, instead. So, Brenner and his group decided to ask whether worm mutants might be isolated and resistant to the tetramisole’s paralyzing effects. The new experiments proved to be an astounding success. Soon, they found tetramisole-resistant Caenorhabditis elegans mutants.

Another mutant would soon emerge, and it would help garner the Nobel for Brenner. The famous worm mutant was uncoordinated in its behavior. Mapping the affected genomic element showed defects in a region now called unc. The unc region of the mutant worm harbored a series of genes, each coding for different proteins. For example, one gene called unc-15 encoded a para myosin protein that plays a role in muscle physiology. Another gene called unc-54 coded for another protein that controls the muscle contraction protein called myosin.

Soon after the publication of Brenner’s worm mutants, interest in the work spread to the broader scientific community, and soon students flocked to his laboratory. The result was that Brenner could start many new projects, all centered on the now-famous Caenorhabditis elegans laboratory worm. One very interesting project dealt with determining the nucleotide sequence of the worm’s genome. Another project led to the discovery that the worm’s nervous system consisted of precisely 302 individual nerve cells called neurons.

8) Apparently, Brenner was quite the writer, critic, satirist, making some observations here and there about things. Can you provide some examples?

In the 1990s, Brenner became a regular columnist of a newsletter series called “Loose Ends” at first and later “False Starts,” both of which were featured in the journal called “Current Biology.” Reviews of his columns were widely varied. Some readers were amused, delighted, and even dazzled. Many of Brenner’s columns were described as humorous and witty, if not insightful. On the other hand, some readers found Brenner’s writings offensive. These critics’ described Brenner as sort of a “witty trickster, who delights in stirring up things.” In any case, Brenner would consequently be introduced by seminar conveners as “Uncle Syd.”

One telling commentary by Brenner was delivered one evening at his Nobel Prize dinner banquet. Brenner told the audience about a letter he received after it was announced that he would share the Nobel Prize. The correspondence to Brenner was from a graduate student wanting advice on how to win a Nobel Prize. Brenner further elaborated that he had been preparing a reply to the graduate student inquiry. The response would first state that one must choose the right place to research with generous monetary sponsorship. Such institutions attract remarkable scientists who can mentor younger scientists and serve as inspirational figures.

Next, Brenner explained, one must choose the right laboratory organism to study. In this regard, Brenner was supremely fortunate. He had chosen bacteria and phages, which he astutely exploited to change the course of molecular biology for millennia. Brenner had chosen the mild-mannered nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, from which he mapped its neuro-circuitry and function. Third, Brenner said that one must select excellent colleagues (and their colleagues) who aren’t afraid of hard work—the story of going back to the laboratory from the beach is a prime example of the dedication for advances in scientific knowledge to come to fruition. Lastly, and most importantly, Brenner said one must select and enlightened and appreciative Nobel Commission!

9) What have I neglected to ask about this stellar scientist?

Dr. Sydney Brenner was widely recognized as a pioneering molecular biologist. Among the many accolades bequeathed to Brenner, a few are listed below. Brenner was conferred EMBO Membership in 1964. He was given the William Bate Hardy Prize (1969), the Albert Lasker Medical Research Award (1971), the Royal Medal (1974), and became a Foreign Associate of the National Academy of Sciences (1977). Brenner was presented with the Gairdner Foundation International Award (1978), the Krebs Medal (1980), the Rosenstiel Award (1986), the Louis-Jeantet Prize for Medicine (1987), the Harvey Prize (1987), the Genetics Society of America Medal (1987), the Kyoto Prize (1990), Copley Medal (1991), the Gairdner Foundation International Award (1991), the King Faisal International Prize in Medicine (1992), and the Dan David Prize (2002). Brenner was granted the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (2002), and he shared it with John E. Sulston and H. Robert Horvitz. They had found how specific genes regulate tissue and organ development.

Brenner married May Woolf Balkind in December of 1952 in London. She had a son, Jonathan. Brenner and his wife worked on their respective theses, had a child, and reminisced about the warm weather and delicious food in South Africa. In later years, the couple had two more children.

Brenner died in Singapore in 2019 on April 5.

For additional information on Dr. Sydney Brenner, a pioneer molecular biologist, visit:

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