Last month, Sydney Brenner passed away at the age of 92. Brenner was a driving force in the founding of the what we think of as modern genetics and molecular biology. His list of accomplishments is stunning, as he often seemed to achieve a significant breakthrough and then move on to the next challenge — “I think my real skills are getting things started,” as he said in his autobiography.
Brenner’s experiments led to our understanding of how DNA is transcribed and translated into proteins, he proved the triplet nature of the genetic code, and discovered messenger RNA. If that wasn’t enough, in the early 1960s he pioneered the use of the nematode worm, as a model experimental system which has led to so much of our understanding of genetics and development (Brenner, along with H. Robert Horvitz, and John Sulston, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for this work in 2002).
This breadth of achievement speaks to a different world of research than the one we live in now which seems to require specialization and focus (knowing more and more about less and less, as it were). Brenner was also affectionately known as “Uncle Syd” for his columns in Current Biology where he offered advice to graduate students as they climbed the ladder through different stages of their careers.
As always in times like these, I like to turn to one of my favorite resources, Conversations in Genetics, the wonderful video series put together by pre-eminent yeast geneticist Shelly Esposito (full disclosure — my Mother-In-Law). In this series, Esposito paired a founder of modern genetics with one of their scientific descendants for an in depth conversation about how the ideas behind key experiments arose. In the video below, Brenner is expertly interviewed by his former student, Barbara Meyer, Professor of Genetics, Genomics, and Development, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator at UC Berkeley. You’ll learn how Brenner’s intentions all along were to study the field of molecular biology, a daunting task as the subject didn’t yet exist.