Sydney Brenner, MBBCh, DPhil, Nobel Laureate, and a Fellow of the AACR Academy, died April 5, 2019, at age 92.
Brenner was born in 1927 in Germiston, South Africa. He earned his bachelor’s degree and medical degree from the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, then a doctorate from the University of Oxford.
After completing his doctorate, Brenner joined the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB), where he worked with renowned scientists such as Francis Crick, who codiscovered DNA. Together, they conducted research on the functions of genetic material, leading to the discovery of codons for amino acids. Brenner’s research also helped define the molecular mechanisms by which proteins are produced and encoded by specific messenger RNA (mRNA) sequences. He codiscovered mRNA and determined that during translation, different mRNA sequences correlate to the production of specific amino acids that make up various proteins. This knowledge has been instrumental in the evolution of cancer research, leading to better understanding of the molecular process of protein production.
Later, Brenner’s research focused on the neurobiology and development of a nematode worm, Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans). The use of C. elegans has contributed immensely to the understanding of numerous biological events in humans, including cell development, growth, proliferation, survival, and death. This work was cited when Brenner, along with John E. Sulston and H. Robert Horvitz, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002.
Brenner was the director of the LMB from 1979 to 1986, then ran a molecular genetics unit in Cambridge University’s Department of Medicine. During this time, he championed global research, supporting numerous international organizations and leading the United Kingdom’s work in the Human Genome Organization.
From 1996 to 2000, he was president and director of The Molecular Sciences Institute in Berkeley, California. He also became a distinguished professor at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California. Scientists trained in his laboratories often went on to robust research careers of their own; five Nobel laureates had previously worked in Brenner’s lab. In recent years, he lived in Singapore, where he worked with the government-sponsored Agency for Science, Technology and Research.
Aside from his Nobel Prize, Brenner won the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research in 1971, the Gairdner Foundation International Award in 1978, the Krebs Medal from the Federation of European Biochemical Societies in 1980, the Harvey Prize from the Technicon-Israel Institute of Technology in 1987, the Kyoto Prize in 1990, the Copley Medal in 1991, the King Faisal International Prize for Science in 1992, the Albert Lasker Award for Special Achievement in Science in 2000, and the AACR-Irving Weinstein Foundation Distinguished Lectureship in 2008.
Brenner was elected to the AACR Academy in 2013. He was an elected foreign member of the Academy of Science in Paris and the Royal Academy of Sciences in Spain. He was an elected fellow of The Royal Society in London.
“Sydney Brenner’s seminal discoveries and insights as a molecular biologist led to a tremendous leap in our understanding of the human body,” said Margaret Foti, PhD, MD (hc), chief executive officer of the American Association for Cancer Research. “His work was fueled by a true passion for science, experimentation, and collaboration.”