Sydney Brenner: Study of little things that make us whole.

When a child is an embryo in its mother’s womb, developing its features, for example, the separation of fingers and toes occur because of apoptosis (programmed cell death). Between 50 to 70 billion cells die each day due to apoptosis in an average human adult, and about 20 to 30 billion cells in children aged between 8 to 14. And it is Brenner’s study and discoveries about how genes regulate tissue and organ development via a key mechanism called apoptosis, along with John E. Sulston and H. Robert Horvitz that won them the Nobel Prize in 2002.

Sydney Brenner born in January 13, 1927 at Germiston, South Africa. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. His father was a cobbler and one of their first homes were at the back of his shop. He learnt to read and write at a young age, and was sent to a kindergarten when one of his father’s customers urged him to let his child learn. It was at the public library of Germiston where he found the source of knowledge and the means to acquire it by reading, a habit which he follows unto this day.

He gradually became interested in Chemistry and gradually accumulated enough test tubes and glassware to carry out experiments of his own, with the chemicals that he purchased from the local pharmacy supply house. His interested gradually moved towards biochemistry, trying to discover what gave flower their distinctive colours. He was amazed to find that the extracted pigments changed colour when the pH of the solution changed.

He was educated at the Germiston High School and the University of Witwatersrand. He completed the first three years of his primary school in one year, he was allowed to complete a B.Sc degree in anatomy and physiology, because he was too young to practise medicine. He supported himself by working as a part time lab technician and completed his honours degree and then an M.Sc degree. His master thesis was in the field of cytogenetics.

After receiving Ph. D. in 1954 from the University of Oxford, he did his post doctoral research at the University of California, Berkeley. He spent the next twenty years working at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. He also worked with the Medical Research Council (MRC), England. And later directed the MRC’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology (1979-86) and Molecular Genetics Unit (86-91). HE founded the California based Molecular Sciences Institute in 1996, and in 2000 accepted the position of distinguished research professor at Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, California.

In the 1960s, Brenner’s prime focus was the studies of organ development and related processes in higher animals with enormous number of cells. His investigations showed that certain chemical compounds could induce genetic mutation in the cells of worm that had specific effects on organ development. His work laid the foundation for future research on programmed cell death.

Brenner was married to May Brenner from December 1952 until her death in January 2010. He had three children and a stepson from his wife’s first marriage. He lives in Ely, Cambridgeshire. He has made innumerable contributions to the field of Molecular Biology and finally to conclude with his own words, “Science is something one is tied to for life and one should never retire from anything until one has secured one’s next job. The endless quest for knowledge will continue as long as humans exist.”

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  1. Janais May 2, 2016
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