One of the world’s pioneers in genetics and molecular biology, Sydney Brenner has devoted his career to conducting groundbreaking basic research and promoting science around the world.
Born in Germiston, South Africa, Brenner earned degrees in medicine and science in 1947 from Johannesburg’s University of Witwatersrand before moving to England, where he received a doctorate in chemistry from Oxford University in 1954 and began taking part in leading-edge research into DNA, molecular biology and developmental genetics. By 1956, he was sharing an office in Cambridge with Francis Crick, an alliance that lasted 20 years. Along with Crick, Brenner proposed that a single amino acid was coded by three nucleotides, a triplet, of RNA. He further demonstrated that the triplet combination of uracil, adenine and guanine—the “nonsense” or “stop” codon (a term he coined)—signifies the end of a translation process.
In the early 1960s, Brenner co-discovered the existence of messenger RNA and demonstrated that the nucleotide sequence of mRNA determines the order of amino acids in proteins. This work led to his first Lasker Award in Basic Medical Research; he later received a second Lasker Award in honor of his outstanding lifetime achievements. It was Brenner’s pioneering research with Caenorhabditis elegans, however, that led to his Nobel Prize. Beginning in 1965, he began to lay the groundwork to make C. elegans, a small, transparent nematode, into a major model organism for genetics, neurobiology and developmental biology research. As a direct result of his original vision, this tiny worm became the first animal for which the complete cell lineage and entire neuronal wiring were known. Today, more than 1,000 investigators are studying C. elegans, and Brenner’s work was further honored when a closely related nematode was named Caenorhabditis brenneri.
Beyond his own research, Brenner has been a driving force in advancing scientific research worldwide. He was instrumental in guiding Singapore toward biomedical research and founded the Molecular Sciences Institute in Berkeley, California, in 1996, serving as its president and director of science. He is also founding president of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology. Brenner, who previously had served as a scholar-in-residence at The Scripps Research Institute, has been a member of the Salk Institute faculty since 2000.