There are not too many scientists who deserve to be included in the category of geniuses. Very few are the true giants of science on whose shoulders the other researchers have learned to love this profession, with the passion, skepticism, curiosity and perseverance required. Sydney Brenner is, without a doubt, one of them. Y we just left at the age of 92 years. It is worth remembering briefly some chapters of his life, intense, unique and singular in many aspects.
Brenner wrote an autobiography, My life in science, in 2001, highly recommended reading for any young person who starts his research career. Beside The tonics of the will: rules and advice on scientific research, of our distinguished Nobel Prize winner Santiago Ramón y Cajal, I believe that they are the two books that should not be missing in the bedside table of any doctoral student.
Brenner was the son of a Lithuanian father and Latvian mother, Jewish emigrants who settled in South Africa, where he was born. His father, a cobbler who could never read or write, fluently used different languages (English, Russian, Yiddish, Afrikaans and Zulu) which he transmitted to his son Sydney, a brilliant and precocious student who attained higher studies in medicine, physiology, Physics, chemistry, botany and zoology at the early age of 15 years.
"The really interesting genome is that of Uncle Harry, who smoked two packs of tobacco all his life and lived more than 90 years," Brenner said.
Upon completing his studies so early he discovered the world of research, thanks to his studies on cells, which led him to cytogenetics, and from there to genetics and molecular biology, fields in which he would triumph years later in successive laboratories in those who worked at the University of Oxford, at the legendary Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge (United Kingdom), at the University of California at Berkeley and at the Salk Institute in San Diego (USA). In his years in the United Kingdom he coincided with James Watson and Francis Crick, being one of the first who could contemplate the DNA structure that they had just proposed.
There are many contributions, findings and discoveries that Brenner bequeathed to us throughout his long and prolific professional life. I will highlight only two, of great relevance. We owe him the discovery of nothing less than messenger RNA, the intermediary between the genetic information that is stored in DNA, in the nucleus of our cells, and the protein factory, which resides outside the nucleus. The messenger RNA is in charge of authentically transporting said genetic information of the genes until they are converted into proteins, which are what ultimately perform all the functions we need to live.
We must also have proposed to him the use of a new animal model, much simpler (in appearance) than rodents, fish or amphibians usually used in biology. Brenner discovered for science The worm Caenorhabditis elegans, of hardly a millimeter and a thousand cells, but with practically the same number of genes and the same essential vital functions that we have any of us. With this small worm, a real gift for the biology of development and genetics, it was possible to elucidate, for the first time, all the processes that occur in an organism to convert an embryo from a single cell into an adult worm, describing for example all the connections of your neurons. Something unthinkable for other more complex animals, and a huge source of knowledge for biology and biomedicine, which has allowed us to investigate such complex processes as aging, cancer, alterations in metabolism and many diseases that also affect us.
Brenner discovered for science a worm of just one millimeter and a thousand cells
For all these scientific contributions Brenner was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2002, with John Sulston and Robert Horovitz, for its discoveries in the genetic regulation of the development of organs and for describing the process of programmed cell death, essential in the development of any organism.
Brenner, iconoclast, biting, ironic, incisive, shocking, surprising and always brilliant visited Spain on numerous occasions. His lectures were expected because of the depth and clarity of his messages, not necessarily politically correct. Probably one of the last times that he visited us was on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Spanish Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, in 2013. In relation to the genome studies of healthy people I remember that he was able to say: "The interesting genome It really is that of Uncle Harry, who smoked two packages of tobacco throughout his life and lived more than 90 years. " There are many phrases that identify him. My favorite is: "Progress in science depends on new techniques, new discoveries and new ideas, probably in this order." As witness in the front line of the technological revolution that the CRISPR gene editing tools have brought us, I can not agree more with Brenner.
I write this obituary while I fly over Russia, on my way to Japan. In Barajas I have coincided with César Nombela, former president of the CSIC and former director of the Menéndez Pelayo International University. Commenting on Brenner's death, he reminded me of the last paragraph of an opinion piece he wrote for the magazine Science in 2003, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the DNA double helix. In that gallery, Sydney Brenner commented that the two ethical values that should characterize a researcher in life sciences were: telling the truth and defending all of humanity. I would dare to say that we are an immense majority of scientists who subscribe to it.
Lluís Montoliu He is a researcher at the National Center for Biotechnology (CNB-CSIC) and the Center for Biomedical Research in the Network of Rare Diseases (CIBERER-ISCIII).