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Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics

The Sydney Brenner papers

With Francis Crick, Sydney Brenner laid much of the groundwork for our understanding of how cells read the genetic code.

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Collection overview

Sydney Brenner (1927–2019) has always been a doer as well as a thinker: he describes his real skill as "getting things started". Unlike Francis Crick, who was principally a theoretician, Brenner loved to test his ideas through experiments. His knowledge of bacterial genetics led him to propose a non-overlapping, three-letter code for DNA. He was also a co-discoverer of messenger RNA, which carries the coded instructions from the nucleus to the protein factories of the cell.

Brenner and Crick
Brenner and Crick, 1986
Credit: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

At the same time he has shouldered administrative responsibilities, spending six years as director of the immensely productive Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge and subsequently establishing new research laboratories in California and Singapore. He was also a key figure in promoting the sequencing not only of human genes but also of model organisms such as the puffer fish Fugu. The breadth of his experience is reflected in his extensive collection of papers.

He is garrulous, gregarious and forceful in his opinions, all characteristics that make his archive a treasure trove for historians. He has always been a meticulous archivist of his own correspondence and writings, both personal and scientific, which are now in the archives of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island. Through his papers it is possible to follow his development from an eager young research scientist into one of the intellectual pillars of molecular biology, and an indefatigable champion of research on every continent.

Brenner's correspondents read like a 'Who's Who' of 20th-century molecular biology: apart from Crick and James Watson, he was also in regular touch with Seymour Benzer, Max Delbrück, Salvador Luria, François Jacob, Linus Pauling and Maurice Wilkins. His institutional papers meanwhile give an insight into the way the financial fortunes of science have changed over the years, and the fundraising strategies he adopted to keep labs occupied and producing results.

A migrant from early adulthood, he has a global outlook that has seen him transform the research capacity of Singapore, and advise the Japanese on research management. While Brenner has never become a household name, his work has kept him at the forefront of molecular biology for more than half a century.

Nobel Prize winner Sydney Brenner was born in 1927, the child of an illiterate Lithuanian Jewish immigrant to South Africa. Brenner's intellect soon set him apart: like James Watson, he went to university at the age of 15, eventually qualifying in medicine at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.


Brenner in the 1950s
Sydney Brenner in the 1950s
Credit: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

A scholarship brought him to Oxford in 1952, and the following year he was one of the first to visit Cambridge to see Watson and Crick's model of DNA. From 1956 until the early 1970s Crick and Brenner shared an office and endlessly discussed the mechanisms of DNA decoding and protein synthesis, scribbling on blackboards as they did so.

Wanting to explore the whole sequence of events from genes to behaviour, Brenner began to study the genetics, development and nervous system of the tiny roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans. It was this work, now grown to a worldwide community of worm researchers, that led to his Nobel Prize in 2002.

After his retirement from the Medical Research Council's staff, Brenner moved to California, where he founded the Molecular Sciences Institute. He has since worked closely with the Singapore Institute of Molecular and Cellular Biology and continues to travel indefatigably, well into his 80s.

Brenner's razor-sharp mind and scathing wit have brought him enemies as well as friends, but he can be self-deprecating. "Most of what I say is rubbish, but amidst the kind of stream of unconsciousness, if I can coin a phrase, there is the odd idea that can be developed into something," he wrote in his autobiography.

Originals held by... 

This material has been provided by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archives where originals may be consulted. 

Too many people are brought up…to think that…daring ideas shouldn't be uttered, simply because they are most likely to be wrong the first time around.

Sydney Brenner, 'My Life in Science', 2001

Digitised book

by Watson, Tooze and Kurtz

by Watson, Tooze and Kurtz

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In The Timeline

1961: Francis Crick and Sydney Brenner discover that the genetic code is a triplet code

Francis Crick and Sydney Brenner discover that the genetic code is a triplet code

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