5 April: Tribute to Sydney Brenner

5 April: Tribute to Sydney Brenner

Sydney Brenner (13 January 1927 – 5 April 2019) was a South African biologist. In 2002, he won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research on programmed cell death.

Early Life and Education

He was born on 13 January 1927, in Germiston, Transvaal, Union of South Africa. He earned his honors degree and an MSc while working as a part-time lab technician.

He wrote his master’s thesis on cytogenetics. In 1951, he earned his Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery degrees.

He got a DPhil degree from the University of Oxford. He got an Exhibition Scholarship from the Royal Commission for the Exhibition.

Brenner joined the University of California, Berkeley for his postdoctoral research after earning his DPhil. He spent the next 20 years doing research at the Cambridge Molecular Biology Laboratory.


Brenner was one of the first people to see the DNA structure discovered by Francis Crick and James Watson in April 1953, along with Jack Dunitz, Leslie Orgel, Dorothy Hodgkin, and Beryl M. Oughton.

Back then, Brenner and the other researchers were working in the chemistry department of the University of Oxford.

He was the first to prove that all overlapping genetic coding sequences weren’t possible. As a result of this insight, Francis Crick proposed the concept of “adaptor,” or “transfer RNA (tRNA).”

A tRNA is made up of an anticodon and an amino acid, which is the central tenet of molecular biology.

Based on Larry Astrachan and Elliot Volkin’s research, Brenner developed the messenger RNA concept.

He proved the triplet nature of the protein code in 1961 with Francis Crick, Richard J. Watts-Tobin, and Leslie Barnett.

Later, Leslie Barnett helped Sydney Brenner to start his own lab in Singapore.

Brenner and Pieczenik performed the first computer-based matrix analysis of nucleic acids with TRAC. In a landmark paper about protein synthesis, Brenner collaborated with Klug, Crick, and Pieczenik.

In order to research animal development, Brenner introduced Caenorhabditis elegans, a roundworm that starts life with just 1,090 cells. The soil worm was chosen by Brenner because it was cheap, easy to farm in bulk, transparent, and allowed scientists to study cell division.

Sydney Brenner died on 5 April 2019, in Singapore.

Other Works

In 1996, he founded the Molecular Sciences Institute in California, and in 2000, he became a distinguished research professor at the Salk Institute.

Until 2015, he worked at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Janelia Farm Research Campus, and the Singapore Biomedical Research Council.

In August 2005, he became president of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology. He was a professor at The Scripps Research Institute and a board member of the Scientific Governors.

He co-organized a Big Bang to the Present lecture series in Singapore in 2017.

Brenner also developed an “American Plan” and a “European Plan,” which explained how brain cells make decisions.


In 2002, he won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research on programmed cell death.

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