From the time Sydney Brenner traveled to Cambridge, England in 1953 to visit James Watson and Francis Crick to see their new model of DNA, Brenner wanted to know how that molecule was transformed into an organism. Since then, Brenner's pioneering research has helped elucidate the mysteries of the genetic code and introduced entirely new ways of thinking about molecular biology.
In the early 1960s, Brenner established the existence of messenger RNA, the intermediary molecule in the conversion of genes to protein. He went on to demonstrate that the sequence of the nucleotides—the building blocks that make up that RNA—is the blueprint for the amino acid sequence in the final protein. Together with Francis Crick, Brenner proposed that the basic language of RNA was a triplet code: three nucleotides of RNA are read together as one unit and then translated into a single amino acid that becomes part of the final protein. This triplet code is the basis of the information programmed in the genetic material of all organisms.
Also during the 1960s, in search of a simple organism in which to study the fundamental events of development, Brenner came across a transparent worm that, although only 1 millimeter long, seemed full of potential. Brenner transformed the worm, Caenorhabditis elegans, which is easy to grow in the laboratory but undergoes a complex transformation from egg to multicellular organism, into a powerful system for studying development. This work—for which he was awarded the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, with John E. Sulston of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and H. Robert Horvitz, an HHMI investigator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—led to the first genetic map of a multicellular organism and paved the way to major revelations about programmed cell death and the regulation of organ development.
In 1996, Brenner founded the Molecular Sciences Institute in Berkeley, California, which brings together scientists from many disciplines to study how cells and organisms respond to genetic and environmental changes. In 2000, he moved to The Salk Institute in La Jolla, where, in keeping with his tradition of manipulating novel organisms for study, he has focused on the genetics of the pufferfish. His recent studies have resulted in new ways of analyzing gene sequences and understanding vertebrate evolution.
Sydney Brenner earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa and received a D.Phil. from Oxford University. He is the founder of the Molecular Sciences Institute in Berkeley, California, and is a distinguished professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. He was awarded the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and has also received the Gairdner Foundation International Award and two Albert Lasker Awards.