Nobel laureate Sydney Brenner, who helped place Singapore on biotech world stage, dies at 92

Nobel laureate Sydney Brenner died on Friday morning (April 5). He was 92.
Nobel laureate Sydney Brenner died on Friday morning (April 5). He was 92. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Nobel laureate Sydney Brenner, the scientific giant whose efforts were key in putting Singapore on the global biomedical map, died in his sleep on Friday (April 5). He was 92.

Known for his sharp wit and healthy disregard for authority, the father of molecular biology lived for science, and was working till the very end.

"It's the end of an era. He was Yoda to a generation of young scientists," said long-time collaborator and former Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) chief Philip Yeo, drawing a parallel to the legendary Jedi Master of Star Wars fame. "His mind was still perfect but his body failed."

Dr Brenner shaped modern biology and understanding of the genetic code for over six decades. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002 for his work in molecular biology.

Involved with the research push here for over 30 years, he came up with the idea of setting up the first major research institute for science in Singapore - the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB) which was launched in 1985. It is now a world renowned institute.

He also helped establish the A*Star (Agency for Science, Technology and Research) Graduate Academy to help Singapore build its own cohort of young scientists and engineers, said the agency yesterday.

The first honorary citizen of Singapore in 2003, he remained scientific adviser to the chairman of A*Star and head of its Molecular Engineering Laboratory until his death.

 
 
 

Scientists from all over the world mourned his death yesterday and accolades flew thick and fast.

Said Sir Richard Sykes, former Rector of Imperial College London and former chairman of pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, who chairs Singapore's Health and Biomedical Sciences International Advisory Committee: "Sydney was a pioneer and a leader of the molecular biology revolution and the father of biomedical sciences in Singapore.

  • Dr Sydney Brenner's achievements

  • • He was a renowned pioneer in molecular biology. His many achievements included deciphering how the triplet codon (genetic code) works, the discovery of messenger RNA, and the use of the worm, C. elegans, as a model system for human disease. This culminated in him being conferred the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002, together with scientists John Sulston and Robert Horvitz.

    • His dedication and commitment to Singapore contributed to policies and initiatives that have left an indelible mark on the nation's research and development journey. For his contributions, Dr Brenner received many accolades, including the Distinguished Friends of Singapore award in 2000, Honorary Citizen in 2003 and the National Science and Technology Medal in 2006.

    • He was always a strong advocate for young scientists. Through his support, the A*Star Graduate Academy was established to help Singapore build its own pipeline of young scientists and engineers, and he also started the Molecular Engineering Lab to bring together small teams to work on multi-disciplinary projects. This has helped raise the standing and reputation of Singapore as one of the leading global centres for science, research and education.

    • In November (2018), a book entitled 10-on-10: The Chronicles of Evolution, published by Wildtype Books, was launched as tribute to Dr Brenner's extraordinary vision and legacy. The book was written by 24 renowned scientists and is a compilation of a series of lectures on evolution, that was the brainchild Dr Brenner.

    SOURCE: A*STAR

"He had immense mental energy which he applied to all aspects of his life. He was funny, charming but most of all caring. He cared for the young scientists around him, developing a cadre of people to drive the frontiers of knowledge."

Although he was born in South Africa and lived in Britain as an adult, Dr Brenner eventually called Singapore his home and research base, living at the Shangri-La hotel and travelling to the Fusionopolis research hub to work every day.

But he had grown increasingly frail in the last few years, suffering from lung disease that required a constant supply of air from an oxygen tank, and shuttling in and out of hospital.

But work was always on his mind.

"I do not do anything but work. I am beyond all those other things," he said in an interview at age 90.

"That's what I do - discover new things, things that wouldn't be known if not for me. I am always asking questions."

IMCB Professor and research director Byrappa Venkatesh, who has known Dr Brenner for 28 years starting from when he was a postdoc in his lab in Cambridge, said that the man had inspired thousands of students and scientists around the world over his career.

"He was always thinking of new concepts and projects even until his last days. His enthusiasm was contagious," he said.

Personally, Dr Brenner had a major impact on his career, said Prof Venkatesh, and had encouraged him to think of big, groundbreaking projects.

"In his death, I have lost a great mentor and a close friend, and the world has lost a great scientist."

Professor Keith Peters met Dr Brenner in 1977 and the latter later worked under him at the Department of  Medicine in Cambridge University. 

"Sydney was a genius," he said.

"Arguably with Crick and Watson (the scientists who discovered the structure of DNA) the greatest biomedical scientist of the 20th Century... an astonishing breadth of intellect in music, literature and science. A man apart."