A scientific giant, Sydney Brenner has died at the age of 92. He was present at the beginning of molecular biology – while in the chemistry department at Oxford, he car-pooled with Dorothy Hodgkin, Leslie Orgel, Jack Dunitz and others over to Cambridge to see Watson and Crick’s new model for the structure of DNA back in April 1953. And he never looked back. He and Crick ended up collaborating for many years. He was the first to realize that there needed to be such a thing as messenger RNA, and was crucial in working out the triplet-code system for amino acids.
Brenner began to feel that the major problems of early (“classical”) molecular biology were either solved or on their way to being solved, and looked for a way to extend his research into the downstream effects of genetics. He turned to simple model organisms to work out more details of genetic and cellular function, famously choosing the C. elegans nematode (here’s a copy of his letter requesting the inital batch!) This was an enormously productive line of research – when he shared the Nobel in 2002, he cited his choice of organism as one of the best decisions he’d ever made. “Without doubt the fourth winner of the Nobel prize this year is Caenohabditis elegans; it deserves all of the honour but, of course, it will not be able to share the monetary award.”
They grow quickly, their bodies are transparent, their self-fertilizing nature makes isogenic populations easy to produce and maintain, they produce a large number of interesting viable mutants – Brenner chose well indeed. He and his co-workers worked out the basic map of the organism’s nervous system and much more – the organism has a constant number of cells (959 in the common hermaphroditic form, 1031 in the rarer males), and the lineage and fate of every single one has been studied in detail. Hundreds of papers a year continue to appear on nematode work, and the little guys have certainly not yielded all their secrets yet.
Sydney Brenner won basically every major award a biologist can win, and is considered one of the founders of chemical biology and other fields besides. I very much regret never having had the chance to meet him in person – he was famously well-spoken, with a wit that sometimes had to be edited out in interviews because it cut a bit too close for editorial comfort. For many years, he wrote a column in Current Biology entitled “Loose Ends“, which I always looked forward to reading. This ranged rather widely, from thoughts about research strategies all the way to advice on the perfect practical joke. I remember that column vividly, and I cannot resist quoting it:
I was visiting the W— Pharmaceutical Company in Japan and at the end of the tour I was taken to a meeting room where everybody had gathered. This company made a Japanese herbal remedy concocted from fermented garlic, which was widely used. It was called something like Lycopentane, which sounds like lighter fuel for werewolves, and was so vile tasting that it had to be taken in gelatine capsules. The dose was large, however, and the capsules could not be filled and sold without leaking, so a kit was provided with a dropper bottle and empty capsules.I said I would like to try the remedy and with much amusement a kit was brought in. I filled a capsule and swallowed it. As it went down, I gave a strangled cry, followed by a gurgle, rolled off the chair and lay motionless on the floor. Through one half-opened eye I observed the reactions of my hosts. They were thunderstruck; the blood had drained from their faces and in the few seconds that I lay there, I could see running though their minds questions such as how to dispose of the body and what to do about my colleague who had observed the event, also with surprise.The laughter when I rose from the floor was almost hysterical, and, in the end, everybody enjoyed themselves. I am quite famous in Japan for this and every now and then, somebody comes up to me, shaking their head, nudging me and saying “W— Pharmaceutical Company.”