Sydney Brenner died on April 5 in Singapore at the age of 92.
Brenner has been called a giant of molecular biology. Among his many contributions to this field are key experiments in 1961 proving that the mRNA is the carrier of genetic information, and the substrate for protein synthesis on the ribosome. Here I want to focus on his role in the discovery of mRNA, for obvious reasons.
The question who discovered mRNA is complicated as it involves many people, at a time when there was still confusion about the role of the ribosome, and some people still thought protein synthesis took place directly on the DNA. Here is a historical account in a Cell paper published in 2015 by Matthew Cobb:
It is an absolutely fascinating story and worth reading. It describes, among many other things, a meeting on15 April 1960, Good Friday, between Sydney Brenner, Francis Crick and Francois Jacob from the Pasteur Institute in Paris in which a profound “AHA!” moment occurred as completely different pieces of evidence from the virus field and the DNA and protein synthesis fields collided and suddenly made sense. Everyone talked loudly at the same time. “The meeting took place in Brenner’s rooms in King’s College, Cambridge, as a kind of informal ‘after’ meeting following a conference that had been held in London the previous day.”
The insights from that memorable day were published in two Nature articles and one review article in May 1961.
I had a correspondence with Brenner following the inauguration of my HHMI suite at the Wadsworth Center in 1998. At these festivities, we enacted a piece of satire he had written about the purported law suite of a young scientist against the editors of the journal NASCENCE (a contraction of Science and Nature invented by Brenner), claiming they had deprived him of opportunities to advance in his career by rejecting his papers on spurious grounds. When I sent him an account of our skid, with a letter expressing hope that we had not transgressed in using his material in this way, he sent back this letter:
Dear Dr. Frank, I found your recent publication on a recent visit to Cambridge and must say that at first I was of a mind to sue you for theft, piracy, alienation of effect, grievous mental harm and failure to follow the Geneva Convention, but was so amused by its contents, that instead I offer my congratulations and consider myself lucky that I did not have to pay you for advertising rates or page charges. . . .”