100 World Class South Africans: Sydney Brenner

2013-07-30 12:00

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Our other Nobel Prize winner

Born to illiterate immigrants in Germiston in 1927, once young Sydney learnt to read a new world opened up for him.

When an uncle gave him a microscope, he discovered an unseen world: cells.

Brenner got a bursary to study medicine at Wits (age 15), but instead of becoming a doctor he went to Oxford to learn how chemistry could be applied to biology.

His self-taught study of molecular biology (not yet ‘discovered’) continued as he worked part-time in a lab.

Then, in 1952, Watson and Crick solved the structure of DNA. Going to Cambridge that same day to see their model, Brenner describes it as a ‘watershed moment in my scientific life’.

His friendship with Francis Crick became a professional collaboration of 20 years.

He later went to California where he started the Molecular Sciences Institute at Berkeley, and produced seminal work around DNA coding sequences – for which he was awarded the 2002 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine (with Horvits and Sulston).

‘I’m still excited by the prospect of what can be done in biology. Science is something one is tied to for life.’

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