South African Sydney Brenner was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002. His joint discovery of messenger RNA, and, in more recent years, his development of gene cloning, sequencing and manipulation techniques along with his work for the Human Genome Project have led to his standing as a pioneer in the field of genetics and molecular biology.
There was a whole field at the time which involved in doing genetic engineering with lambda in a very primitive way. And this had been in the discovery of the so-called lambda DGs. What they found was that certain lambdas carried all or part of… of the galactose gene that… that had become joined to the lambda by an accident of natural genetic engineering during the course of a growth. Since these are extremely rare, say maybe one every 100 million phages, you had to have a special means to fish it out, and it had become clear that this phage was doing this – was picking up genes from either the left- or right-hand side of the chromosome surrounding it… its site of insertion. So there was the idea you had the phage sitting there in a lysogenic state, you could break it out and you could then… rarely it would break out incorrectly and grab a piece of the bacterium on either side – either galactose or biotin in that case. We had for other reasons, because we had been mapping ambers and ochres and had got into genetics and I'd got an interest in these lambdoid phages, and Ethan Signer was working with me on the lambdoid phages. We had a little side program on these, and we became very interested in a phage called 80, phage 80, which effectively inserted at a different part of the chromosome and picked up the tryptophan genes. And I had worked on this, and in fact I'd known there were two phage 80s, which we called 80.1 and 80.2 – and then later that was also… so the 80.2 had been renamed 81. And I still have these phages and still work with them actually, so always have a bit of side work which I like to dabble in, playing with these phages. So we'd known this, and we knew our SU+3 gene was next to the tryptophan. So I said, 'Well, the main thing we should do was to, to get out this gene attached to this phage. I had gone for a sabbatical to Berkeley – this was about… this was 1965 – and I was determined not to do any more genetics with bacteria. I was already quite heavily engaged in the… in the C. elegans project, and I had told everybody, 'I'm taking a sabbatical, I'm going to write up everything I've done on… on the phage and I don't want to see it again', and what they must do is see if they can find a phage 80 with this gene attached. And I came back to find that all they'd done is sat around talking about it, and no one had done the experiment. And I broke my resolve and it didn't take me very long – I think it took me a week – I had… I had 80 phages with this gene attached, and I could show it had it here. And I remember that I felt… well, now that I've got this I must talk someone into working on this, which is another thing I did a lot of in the lab, which was to sell a project, and the way to sell it needed some idea of the psychology of people and… and… in order to do this.
Lewis Wolpert is Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine in the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology of University College, London. His research interests are in the mechanisms involved in the development of the embryo. He was originally trained as a civil engineer in South Africa but changed to research in cell biology at King's College, London in 1955. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1980 and awarded the CBE in 1990. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1999. He has presented science on both radio and TV and for five years was Chairman of the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science.