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Major Scientific Interests: Molecular biology, cell biology, C. elegans, apoptosis, cell death, messenger RNA (mRNA)
Sydney Brenner is a British biologist and one of the pioneers of genetics and molecular biology. He is considered the “father” of the nematode C. elegans, because he established that worm as a model organism for research. In 2002 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine along with H. Robert Horvitz and John E. Sulston. The Nobel committee praised his work in the area of genetic regulation of organ development and cell death.
Brenner’s scientific career is closely linked with the nematode C. elegans (Caenorhabditis elegans). The worm is just one millimetre long, is transparent and has a life expectancy of 20 days. In 1963, Brenner described the worm, in an application, as a good organism for his research. It was even more suitable than expected and was especially good for studying organ development, cell destiny, the effects of genetic mutations, and ageing processes. By 1998, the worm’s entire DNA had been decoded, and because humans share more than half of their genes with these nematodes, they can be used to research many processes.
Using C. elegans, Brenner also described the first genes to play a significant role in apoptosis. Apoptosis is a sort of cell “suicide”; the affected cell’s volume shrinks, and its core disintegrates. The process is important for the control of tissue size, rejuvenation of tissue, and elimination of deformed cells. Insights into cell death are very important for medicine, because apoptotic processes are involved in many diseases, such as heart disease and neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. In cancer, however, the process of apoptosis is often disrupted by a mutation, and the deformed cells do not die off.
In the early 1960s, Brenner was involved in the discovery of messenger RNA (mRNA) and demonstrated that the nucleotide sequence of mRNA determines the order of the amino acids in proteins. One close relative of C. elegans was named “Caenorhabditis brenneri” after Sydney Brenner in recognition of his discovery and establishment of the nematode in research.
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