Geneticist Sydney Brenner, who made tiny worm a scientific legend, dies

Nobel-prizewinning biologist pioneered use of C. elegans as an animal model.

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South African biologist Sydney Brenner.

Sydney Brenner was a founding member of the European Molecular Biology Organization, EMBO.Credit: Andrew Cutraro/Redux/eyevine

Pioneering molecular biologist Sydney Brenner has died, aged 92. Among Brenner’s most notable achievements was turning the Caenorhabditis elegans nematode worm into a model system for human-disease research in the 1960s and 1970s, which sparked a new field of research.

For this feat, he shared the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with biologists John Sulston and Robert Horvitz. Brenner chose the worm because it was more complex than other well-understood organisms, such as bacteria, yet still simple enough to study in depth. C. elegans is still widely used in biology today — research database PubMed lists some 15,000 papers published in the past decade that include a reference to the worm.

Brenner also co-discovered messenger RNA. These intermediary molecules convey a cell’s genetic code, which is written in DNA, to the cellular machinery that translates messenger RNA into a protein. And, alongside Francis Crick and others, he worked out that the genetic code of DNA is made up of a series of triplets of nucleotides called codons, which encode the amino acids that make up a particular protein.

Brenner, born in Germiston, South Africa, in 1927, spent much of his early career in the United Kingdom, earning his PhD from the University of Oxford. Later, he became director of the Medical Research Council’s prestigious Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge.

In the mid-1990s, he crossed the Atlantic to found the Molecular Sciences Institute in Berkeley, California, and in 2000 he became a distinguished professor at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California.

Over the past 35 years he maintained close links with Singapore, where he was an honorary citizen, and helped to build up its medical-research capacity. His death was announced on 5 April by Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research, A*STAR.

In 1964, Brenner became a founding member of the European Molecular Biology Organization — now known as EMBO, in Heidelberg, Germany — which has grown into academy of more than 1,700 biologists and influences the direction of life-science research on the continent.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-01128-3

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