Nobel laureate and 'giant' of molecular biology Sydney Brenner dies, aged 92

Nobel laureate and 'giant' of molecular biology Sydney Brenner dies, aged 92

Sydney Brenner and Goerge Yeo
Dr Sydney Brenner (right) died on Apr 5, 2019 at the age of 92. (Photo: Facebook / George Yeo)

SINGAPORE: Nobel laureate Dr Sydney Brenner, who played a key role in shaping Singapore's biomedical push, died on Friday (Apr 5) at the age of 92.

Described as a "giant" of molecular biology, Dr Brenner's pioneering work in the field earned him the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002.

The South African-born scientist's many achievements included his work on the genetic code, the discovery of messenger RNA and the use of the worm C elegans as a model system for human disease. 

He first visited Singapore in 1983 and played a key role in building biomedical sciences in the country, eventually going on to be recognised with honorary citizenship in 2003 (the first year the award was instituted).

Dr Brenner spurred the establishment of Singapore's first major research institute for science, the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, in 1985. He also supported the establishment of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) Graduate Academy to help Singapore build its own pipeline of young scientists and engineers.

He received many awards for his efforts in addition to his honorary citizenship, including the Distinguished Friends of Singapore in 2000 and the National Science and Technology Medal in 2006.

Honouring the late A*STAR Senior Fellow, the agency's chairman Chan Lai Fung highlighted the major role Dr Brenner played in shaping the country's research and development.

“A giant in the field of molecular biology, Sydney played a key role in shaping Singapore’s research and development landscape from its early years," said Ms Chan. "His deep contributions in biomedical sciences have helped put Singapore on the global map."

Others noted his support for young scientists.

“Sydney cared deeply about two things. One, that we continue to push the frontiers of human knowledge, and two, that we nurture young scientists so that they have room to grow and take the lead in pushing those frontiers," said Dr Shawn Hoon, a research scientist at A*STAR’s Molecular Engineering Lab. Dr Hoon had known Dr Brenner since 2001 when he was a junior researcher at IMCB.

Tributes also flooded in on social media for the late scientist.

​​​​​​​Former Foreign Affairs Minister George Yeo took to Facebook to pay tribute to him.

"Sydney Brenner, Nobel Laureate, First Honorary Singaporean, Friend. RIP. Together with Francis Crick, his work helped lay the foundation for the biomedical revolution," he said.

Mr Yeo also shared a statement by Dr Cyrus Beh, a senior research fellow at A*STAR's Molecular Engineering Lab who worked under Dr Brenner.

"Sydney pursued misfits, outliers, and disruptive people, because he believes that disruptive advances can only come from disruptive people. (In this, he was Exhibit A)," said Dr Beh. "He carefully cultivated this streak of rebellion in us, whom he calls his students, not for its own sake, but as a way to break out of established approaches that lead to mediocrity."

Added Dr Beh: "I tell people he was my boss, but he was much more than that. He’s a mentor, a friend, and our scientific grandpa. He is and will be sorely missed."

Source: CNA/nc(gs)

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