My Life in Science

  • Sydney Brenner
BioMed Central: 2001. 191 pp. £14.99

In April and May of 1994, Sydney Brenner sat down in front of a video camera and talked to Lewis Wolpert, recording enough to fill 15 videotapes. Errol Friedberg and Eleanor Lawrence have taken sections from the transcript of the interviews and woven them, with linking and explanatory passages added by Friedberg, into My Life in Science, an 'autobiography' of Brenner's more than 50 years of research.

I opened this book with considerable misgivings. Of all the ways to set words on paper, transcription is the least satisfactory, as anyone who has had to edit a transcript knows. The most polished phrases can be reduced to mere platitudes or worse, while every hesitation, deviation and non sequitur is recorded for the continuing embarrassment of the speaker. I am glad to say that in the present case my fears were misplaced; Brenner, Wolpert, Friedberg and Lawrence have produced an informative and entertaining book, redolent with Brenner's voice.

There are many pleasures in the book. It is interesting to learn the inside stories behind some of the classic experiments in molecular genetics. The experiment to confirm the existence of messenger RNA was conceived in a moment of inspiration in Cambridge, but carried out in more prosaic circumstances in a basement at CalTech — François Jacob dropped phosphorus-32 into the water bath and Brenner carried the ultracentrifuge rotor from the cold room to the laboratory as though it were a relic of a saint, in solemn ecclesiastical procession. The paper was written in a form unfamiliar to today's researchers. Brenner and Jacob, in their enthusiasm for Karl Popper's insistence on the falsifiability of scientific hypotheses, began by proposing three models, two of which they set out to disprove.

The book gives many of Brenner's bon mots, which hide some serious insights into how biological research should be done. Take, for example, the 'Don't Worry Hypothesis' — if you have a strong idea that explains something interesting, don't worry too much about what it doesn't explain. Life is complicated, and even the best idea is not going to explain everything. Without the 'Don't Worry Hypothesis', the double helix would have been rejected because no one understood how the two strands of DNA could be unwound during replication. James Watson and Francis Crick put this seemingly insuperable problem to one side, arguing that, as DNA did get replicated, the cell must have ways of unwinding the helix and these would be discovered sooner or later. It is here that Brenner's 'Occam's broom' comes in handy, to sweep the currently difficult facts under the carpet (at least until it becomes impossible to walk on it). 'HAL' is a related concept. Because organisms are complicated, often we do not have the knowledge to make clear-cut predictions. So the thing to do is, 'Have A Look' — just try something and see what happens. Unfortunately, this eminently pragmatic strategy is unlikely to find favour with funding agencies.

Brenner is best known, perhaps, for his championship of the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans as an experimental animal. He recounts how he searched through a veritable bestiary of weird and wonderful animals — the protozoa Paramecium, Naegleria and Hartmanella; rotifers; and the fly Sciara. But although these organisms had interesting biology, they were not amenable to genetic studies. Then he found nematodes, which have an ideal sex life — from a geneticist's perspective — a nervous system small enough to be described completely, and — especially appealing — they can be grown, like bacteria, in Petri dishes. The rest, as they say, is history; more than 3,000 papers have been published on C. elegans since Brenner's classic paper on its genetics was published in 1972. One of these, of course, was the complete sequence of the C. elegans genome, the first genome to be determined for a multicellular organism.

This is not a scholarly book and it does not need to be. However, BioMed Central has done the subject and the editors a grave disservice in two regards. First, there are no photographs, even though there must be innumerable pictures of Brenner from every stage of his career; a few of these would have added greatly to the pleasure of reading the book. Second, there is no index, not even one of names.

Brenner tells us that Fred Sanger described him as “the man who talks a lot”, and, indeed, Brenner considers talking — producing a “stream of unconsciousness” — to be one of his great skills. We are fortunate that these skills are recorded and it is good to have more of Brenner's words down on paper. Brenner remarked once that young Turks quickly change into old Greeks. This fate has not yet befallen him, and together with his own Loose Ends (1997), My Life in Science provides us with a view of the life and works of one of modern biology's most innovative, influential and irrepressible characters.