Salk professor awarded Nobel Prize

Sydney Brenner, a Salk Institute professor and adjunct professor to the UCSD Division of Biological Sciences, was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine last week for his “”discoveries concerning genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death.”” Brenner will receive one-third of the $1.1 million in prize money and shares this year’s recognition with scientists from Cambridge University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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Brenner’s recognized achievements stem from his role in establishing C. Elegans, a small, transparent worm, as the foremost organism in genomics research that has led to a series of profound discoveries in the area of cell development. Research on C. Elegans has proved crucial to understanding the process by which cells naturally die and are replaced — a process that forms the basis for understanding cancer.

Salk Faculty Chair Greg Lemke said Brenner conceived the idea for placing the small worm among research workhouses such as mice and fruit flies because of its simple yet multicellular nature, which allowed scientists to observe genomic processes that applied to much more complex systems.

“”[Brenner] is famous for his enthusiasm for science and his wit, and he’s very good at explaining the excitement of scientists to nonscientists,”” said Lemke of his colleague. “”Even within the scientific community, … by the force of his enthusiasm and scientific personality, Sydney convinced others that [C. Elegans] is the system to work on. He’s a very engaging personality, incredibly young at heart and as youthful as other forward-thinking scientists.””

While Brenner was awarded for research on C. Elegans during the 1960s at Cambridge University, he remains a scientist on the forefront of research in comparative genomics. In 1996, Brenner founded the Molecular Sciences Institute in Berkeley, Calif., and is currently involved in the Fugu genomics project. That project’s aim is to understand the genes of the fugu puffer fish, which the Japanese find a delicacy. Due to the fish’s genomic “”purity,”” it is particularly suited to research.

Lemke also points out that Brenner was “”a giant of 20th century biology”” even before his work on C. Elegans; his work in 1960 established some of the most crucial links of cell biology and protein production in messenger ribonucleic acid.

“”He was often referred to as the brightest person not to have won a Nobel Prize,”” Lemke said. “”He no longer holds that distinction.””

In addition to his research work, Brenner has penned various columns for years in the scientific journal Current Biology. His columns, often filled with wit and humor, pondered recent developments and offered advice to aspiring young scientists.

“”The best way to survive in science, as in other walks of life, is to make people laugh,”” Brenner wrote in a January 2000 column.

“”Laughter registers impact with the greatest efficiency. Risibility is closely related to visibility. This is why Groucho Marx will be remembered long after Karl Marx has been forgotten.””