|Born||13 January 1927
Germiston, Gauteng, South Africa
|Institutions||Molecular Sciences Institute, King's College, Cambridge|
|Known for||Caenorhabditis elegans, Apoptosis|
|Notable awards||Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine 2002|
Brenner was born in a small town, Germiston (South Africa). His parents were Jewish immigrants. His father came to South Africa from Lithuania in 1910, and his mother, from Riga, Latvia, in 1922. Educated at Germiston High School and the University of the Witwatersrand, he went on to complete a D.Phil. from Exeter College, Oxford.
Together with Jack Dunitz, Dorothy Hodgkin, Leslie Orgel, and Beryl Oughton he was one of the first people in 1953 to see the model of the structure of DNA, constructed by Francis Crick and James Watson; at the time he and the other scientists were working at Oxford University's Chemistry Department. All were impressed by the new DNA model, especially Brenner who subsequently worked with Crick at Cambridge in the new Laboratory of Molecular Biology.
Brenner made several seminal contributions to the emerging field of molecular biology in the 1960s. The first was proving that all over-lapping codes were impossible. This insight separated the coding function from structural constraints as proposed in a clever code by George Gamov. This led Francis Crick to propose the concept of the adaptor or as it is now known "transfer RNA". The physical separation between the anti-codon and the amino acid on a tRNA is the basis for the unidirectional flow of information in coded biological systems. This is commonly known as the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology i.e. that information flows from nucleic acid to protein and not protein to nucleic acid. Following this adaptor insight, Brenner proposed the concept of a messenger RNA, based on correctly interpreting the Volken Astrakahn experiment. Then, with Francis Crick and Leslie Barnett, Brenner genetically demonstrated the triplet nature of the code of protein translation through the Crick, Brenner, Barnett, Watts-Tobin et al. experiment of 1961, which discovered frameshift mutations. This insight provided early elucidation of the nature of the genetic code. Leslie Barnett also helped set up Sydney Brenner's laboratory in Singapore, many years later.
Brenner, with Prof. Pieczenik, created the first computer matrix analysis of nucleic acids using TRAC, which Brenner continues to use. Crick, Brenner, Klug and Pieczenik returned to their early work on deciphering the genetic code with a pioneering paper on the origin of protein synthesis, where constraints on mRNA and tRNA co-evolved allowing for a five-base interaction with a flip of the anticodon loop, and thereby creating a triplet code translating system without requiring a ribosome. This model requires a partially overlapping code. This is the only published paper in scientific history with three independent Nobel laureates collaborating as authors.
Brenner then focused on establishing Caenorhabditis elegans as a model organism for the investigation of animal development including neural development. Brenner chose this 1 millimeter-long soil roundworm mainly because it is simple, is easy to grow in bulk populations, and turned out be quite convenient for genetic analysis. For this work, he shared the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with H. Robert Horvitz and John Sulston. The title of his Nobel lecture on December 2002, "Nature's Gift to Science" is a homage to this modest nematode, and he considered that having chosen the right organism turned out to be as important as having addressed the right problems to work on. In 2002 he won the Dan David Prize that was directed by Professor Gad Barzilai. In recognition of his pioneering role in starting what is now a global research community that work on C. elegans, another closely related nematode was given the scientific name Caenorhabditis brenneri.
Brenner founded the Molecular Sciences Institute and is currently associated with the Salk Institute, the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, the Singapore Biomedical Research Council and the Janelia Farm Research Campus, Howard Hughes Medical Institute. In August 2005 Brenner was appointed president of the Okinawa Insitute of Science and Technology. He is also on the Board of Scientific Governors at The Scripps Research Institute. A biography of Brenner is currently being written by Errol Friedberg in the USA, for publication by CSHL Press in 2010: a companion biography to that of Francis Crick in 2009.
Known for his penetrating scientific insight and acerbic wit, Brenner for many years penned a regular column ("Loose Ends") in the journal Current Biology. This column was so popular that "Loose ends from Current Biology", a compilation, was published in 1997 by Current Biology Ltd.,(ISBN 1 85922 325 7) and is now a collectors' item. Brenner wrote "A Life In Science" (ISBN 0-9540278-0-9) paperback published by Biomed Central Ltd. in 2001. Brenner is also noted for his generosity of ideas and the great number of students and colleagues his ideas have stimulated.
Brenner was awarded the National Science and Technology Medal by A*STAR, Singapore on 11 October 2006 for his distinguished and strategic contributions to the development of Singapore’s scientific capability and culture, particularly in the biomedical sciences sector.
The "American plan" and "European Plan" were proposed by Sydney Brenner as competing models for the way brain cells determine their neural functions.
According to the European plan (sometimes referred to as the British plan), the function of cells is determined by its genetic lineage. Therefore, a mother cell with a specific function (for instance, interpreting visual information) would create daughter cells with similar functions.
According to the American plan, a brain cell's function is determined by the function of its neighbors after cell migration. If a cell migrates to an area in the visual cortex, the cell will adopt the function of its neighboring visual cortex cells, guided by chemical and axonal signals from these cells. If the same cell migrates to the auditory cortex, it would develop functions related to hearing, regardless of its genetic lineage.