Sydney Brenner, the Nobel laureate whose studies on the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans led to seminal discoveries in genetics and developmental biology, died today in Singapore. He was 92 years old.
Brenner discovered fundamental steps in how cells use DNA to make the proteins that enable life. He found that sequences of three DNA bases code for the amino acids that form proteins. And he discovered that RNA molecules carry that information to ribosomes, the cellular machines that synthesize proteins.
Brenner went on to pioneer another major breakthrough in biology: identifying and developing the transparent worm C. elegans as an ideal animal model; the worm is used today in labs worldwide. His early research on C. elegans and studies in the years that followed led to winning the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002 with two colleagues, John Sulston and H. Robert Horvitz. The Nobel Committee wrote that the worm research helped identify “key genes regulating organ development and programmed cell death … and [it] shed new light on the pathogenesis of many diseases.”
Brenner was born to Jewish émigré parents in South Africa, where his father worked as a cobbler, and he showed an early precocity for science, entering medical school in Johannesburg at age 15. Brenner quickly gravitated to genetics research: He met DNA co-discoverer Francis Crick in 1953, and soon relocated to the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom to work alongside him. As The Guardian said in an obituary, Brenner and Crick “shared an office for 20 years, talking non-stop, laughing uproariously and generating hundreds of ideas, which they tested in the laboratory with their indispensable research assistant Leslie Barnett.”
Brenner, who was also known as an adept practical joker, continued to work into his 90s. He was married for almost 60 years; his wife, May, died in 2010. He is survived by three children and a stepson.