I recently had the privilege of speaking with Professor Sydney Brenner, a professor of Genetic medicine at the University of Cambridge and Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine in 2002. My original intention was to ask him about Professor Frederick Sanger, the two-time Nobel Prize winner famous for his discovery of the structure of proteins and his development of DNA sequencing methods, who passed away in November. I wanted to do the classic tribute by exploring his scientific contributions and getting a first hand account of what it was like to work with him at Cambridge’s Medical Research Council’s (MRC) Laboratory for Molecular Biology (LMB) and at King’s College where they were both fellows. What transpired instead was a fascinating account of the LMB’s quest to unlock the genetic code and a critical commentary on why our current scientific research environment makes this kind of breakthrough unlikely today.
It is difficult to exaggerate the significance of Professor Brenner and his colleagues’ contributions to biology. Brenner won the Nobel Prize for establishing Caenorhabditis elegans, a type of roundworm, as the model organism for cellular and developmental biological research, which led to discoveries in organ development and programmed cell death. He made his breakthroughs at the LMB, where beginning in the 1950s, an extraordinary number of successive innovations elucidated our understanding of the genetic code. This code is the process by which cells in our body translate information stored in our DNA into proteins, vital molecules important to the structure and functioning of cells. It was here that James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the double-helical structure of DNA. Brenner was one of the first scientists to see this ground-breaking model, driving from Oxford, where he was working at the time in the Department of Chemistry, to Cambridge to witness this breakthrough. This young group of scientists, considered renegades at the time, made a series of successive revolutionary discoveries that ultimately led to the creation of a new field called molecular biology.
To begin our interview, I asked Professor Brenner to speak about Professor Sanger and what led him to his Nobel Prize winning discoveries.