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In Memoriam : So Long, Uncle Syd

GEN honors a titan of science who shared his insights with bracing honesty and good humor

Sydney Brenner
Sydney Brenner

SYDNEY BRENNER (1927–2019)

The great Sydney Brenner, Nobel laureate, died last month at the age of 92. He helped Francis Crick work out messenger RNA’s function and the basis of the genetic code; he championed the use of the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans as a model organism (for which he shared the Nobel Prize with Robert Horvitz and Sir John Sulston); he developed the idea of large-scale cDNA sequencing and new technologies that helped shape next-gen sequencing; and he helped transform molecular biology research in Singapore. All in all, not bad for the South African son of poor Lithuanian immigrants. He taught himself to read from newspapers at age 3–4 and won a scholarship to medical school at age 15. About 10 years later, he was one of the first to lay eyes on Crick and Watson’s iconic double-helix model.

There will be many tributes to “Uncle Syd.” For now, let’s celebrate his eloquence. Here are just a few of his memorable quotes:

“Progress in science depends on new techniques, new discoveries, and new ideas—probably in that order.”

“When I saw the DNA model for the first time [April 1953], in the Cavendish…in a flash, you just knew that this was very fundamental.”

“All experimentalists know you have to do an experiment four times. The first one is a complete mess and shows only a hint that it might have worked. The second one is better but still messy. Then you do it the third time for the book. This is when you forget to add a reagent or mix up the tubes or the centrifuge leaks. That is why there is always a fourth time.”

“In 1985, when the first suggestions were made to sequence the human genome, I thought that the sequencing techniques…would not be equal to the task and would require a factory-scale operation. I had also come to the conclusion that most of the human genome was junk, a form of rubbish which, unlike garbage, is not thrown away. My view at the time was that we should treat the human genome like income tax and find every legitimate way of avoiding sequencing it.”

“[The Human Genome Project] is like sending a man to the moon. When you think about it, sending a man to the moon is easy, it’s getting him back that’s difficult. So, I think we now need to get the human genome to return to work.”

“Two things disappeared in 1990: one was communism, the other was biochemistry…Only one of these should be allowed to come back.”

“The only way to encourage innovation is to give it to the young. The young have a great advantage in that they are ignorant… I think ignorance in science is very important. If you’re like me and you know too much, you can’t try new things. I always work in fields of which I’m totally ignorant.”

“Even God wouldn’t get a grant today because somebody on the committee would say, ‘Oh, those were very interesting experiments (creating the universe), but they’ve never been repeated.’ And then someone else would say, ‘Yes, and he did it a long time ago. What’s he done recently?’ And a third would say, ‘And to top it all, he published it all in an unrefereed journal [The Bible].’”