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Biology Professor at Salk and UCSD Wins 2002 Nobel Prize in Medicine

Oct 7, 2002

Media Contact: Robert Bradford - 858.453.4100 ext. 1290 -

Comment: Sydney Brenner -

Sydney Brenner, a distinguished professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, is one of three recipients of this year’s Nobel Prize in medicine for his contributions toward discoveries about how genes regulate organ growth and the process of programmed cell death.

Brenner showed that the tiny transparent worm C. elegans was useful for studying how cells specialize and organs develop. His work "laid the foundation for this year's prize," the awards committee said.

During his distinguished career, Brenner also demonstrated that a chemical could produce specific genetic mutations in the worm, allowing different mutations to be linked to specific effects on organ development. The work of Brenner and this year’s Nobel laureates in medicine has implications for understanding a range of diseases, including cancer, AIDS, strokes and neurodegenerative diseases.

"Sydney Brenner has made remarkable contributions throughout his career to our understanding of biology and medicine," said Dr. Richard Murphy, president and CEO of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. "He was responsible for uncovering the basic principles of how DNA instructs cells to make proteins and he was the first to sequence the genome of an entire organism (the worm C. Elegans), work that set the stage for understanding the field of cell death, which is critical to our understanding of many diseases, including cancer and degenerative diseases of the brain. His work also provided the foundation for the subsequent sequencing of the human genome. Sydney is a true visionary and one of the most important biologists of our time. He is well deserving of this honor."

In the early 1960s, Brenner established the existence of messenger RNA, or mRNA, which can be translated into proteins, and demonstrated that the nucleotide sequence of mRNA determines the order of amino acids in proteins. For these discoveries in 1971, Brenner received his first Lasker Award, sometimes referred to as "America’s Nobels," in Basic Medical Research. He received a second Lasker Award in 2000.

Among his other notable advances, Brenner — with Salk Institute Distinguished Professor Francis Crick—proposed that a single amino acid is coded by three nucleotides, a triplet, of RNA.

While at the Salk Institute, which he joined in 2000, Brenner has been studying vertebrate gene and genome evolution, where he developed new ways of analyzing gene sequences, offering new understanding into the evolution of vertebrates.

Born in 1927 in Germiston, South Africa, Brenner was awarded degrees in medicine and science in 1947 from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. He subsequently moved to England where, in 1954, he received a D.Phil. in chemistry from Oxford University. In 1957, Brenner joined the Medical Research Council in Cambridge, England. There, he became director of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology and the Molecular Genetics Unit.

From 1981-1985, Brenner served as a non-resident fellow at the Salk Institute; from 1989-1991, he was a scholar-in-residence at the Scripps Research Institute. In 1996, Brenner became president and director of science at the Molecular Sciences Institute in Berkeley, Calif.

Brenner has received numerous awards, including the Gairdner Foundation International Award, the Krebs Medal, the Croonian Medal, the Harvey Prize, the Waterford Bio-Medical Science Award, the Kyoto Prize, the King Faisal International Prize for Science, and the Bristol-Myers Squibb Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Neuroscience Research. He is a member of the Royal Society of London, is a foreign associate of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and is an adjunct professor of biology at the University of California, San Diego.

The Nobel Prize for medicine will be formally presented Dec. 10 -- the anniversary of the death of Alfred Nobel who established the awards – in Stockholm. It carries a cash award of about $1.1 million. It will be shared equally among the three scientists. Sharing this year’s prize with Brenner are John E. Sulston from the United Kingdom and H. Robert Horvitz from the United States. Horvitz, 55, is at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Sulston, 60, works at the Sanger Center at Cambridge University; he studied at the Salk Institute as a postdoctoral student under Salk Professor Leslie Orgel.

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, located in La Jolla, Calif., is an independent nonprofit dedicated to fundamental discoveries in the life sciences, the improvement of human health and conditions, and the training of future generations of researchers. The institute was founded in 1960 by Jonas Salk, M.D., with a gift of land from the City of San Diego and the financial support of the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation.