Sydney Brenner on Pioneering the Field of Molecular Biology
  Sydney Brenner     Biography    
Recorded: 10 Jun 2002

But you know I think apart from that—I think, you know, what we all had—you see, there were so few people at the time that believed in DNA, this is very hard for people to understand as I, indeed I wrote several years ago, that it was like a new evangelical sect. And I can remember—you know, and I finally went to Cambridge in the late ‘50s, of you know, people saying, “Why are you going to London?” And I used to say, “I’m going to preach to the heathen,” you know. So I think because a lot of us saw immediately this is going to be the way to turn biology into a real science and we just got on with it. Most people were, I think, suspicious or didn’t think it would work out or so on. But I think those who were the first members of a new church really realized this. I had already begun to work on the coding problem. I worked on the coding problem and had done a lot; it’s mostly theoretical work. But it was there, what once I saw Seymour Benzer’s fine structure map, we conceived that this would be the way to work out how genes make proteins. So we thought, the first thing was to prove that the order of the amino acid changes was the same as the order and mutations, that is, both DNA—was called a co-linearity problem. Actually, it got solved quite late and we were able to solve it in phage by a method, which was very good but wasn’t dreamt of in those days.

You have to also realize there was another very important step there which was, Vernon Ingram’s discovery of the—that there was a single amino acid change in hemoglobin and I think that that all put together, plus, of course—and so once that got going—people didn’t know how proteins were made, so the thing I worked on in Berkeley with Günter Stent was what we called protoplasts. And of course now we know they aren’t sub-cellular fractions, they just are cells and so—but in those days, that was thought to be pretty good subject.

So basically—I mean, the summing that as a traveling scientist I managed to do two pieces of work, write two papers, so I was very proud of myself.

Sydney Brenner is a pioneer in the field of molecular biology. He was born in South Africa in 1927 and received his Ph.D. from Oxford University in 1954. From 1979 to 1986 he served as Director of the Medical Research Council Laboratory for Molecular Biology and from 1986 to 1991, as the Director of the Medical Research Council Laboratory Molecular Genetics Unit, both in Cambridge, England.

Since 1996 he has been the President and Director of Science at the Molecular Sciences Institute in La Jolla and Berkeley. Brenner was honored as a Distinguished Research Professor at the Salk Institute in La Jolla in 2000.

In 2002 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine with Dr. John Sulston and Dr. Robert Horvitz “for their discoveries concerning ‘genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death’” studying the organism C. elegans.