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Taking the electron microscope out of the hands of the elite


Growing bacteriophage in a Hoover washing machine
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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Well I arrived in Cambridge. I arrived in Southampton again after a long trip, but this time with three children, with a three year appointment for the MRC at a salary of £1,100 a year. I can remember that. It wasn't a tenured appointment, it was a short-term appointment, and this was in the end of December 1956, and we arrived here in Cambridge to take up the appointment from 1st of 1957. And we had to find places to live – it was very, very difficult, I mean, just adapting to this. The laboratory had to be built up from scratch, there weren't any kitchens and so on, and in fact we set about organising a laboratory to do phage work. And our dish washing was in our office, and from that day… there were seven desks in this office, it was mixed up with crystallographers; we had a bench in a chemical lab, and a number of people were hired including Leslie Barnett. Leslie Barnett was then a computer girl, that… in those politically incorrect times this referred to people who actually did the calculations for crystallography on mechanical calculators and there was something known as the three-girl method; that is you got three girls to estimate the density and took the average of their estimation. So, I mean, it was that, and then she joined me, and... because she had a degree in biology… and Kate Wilkins joined us, who stayed with us, and she started to do our dish washing and our preparation. And we got a lab going so that by the time the gang arrived in 19… at the… in September of that year, I'd already done quite a lot of experiments, and we were able to do experiments and one of the things that we started to do – already we were doing then – was to work on bacteriophage. This bacteriophage could be grown on E. coli, and we did this because we could purify it very easily and we could get lots of it. And there were wonderful episodes of how we needed to grow large amounts of this, so I conceived of the idea of growing them in a washing-machine and there was a… because that had… there was a Hoover washing machine, I remember, which was... from the top, and had a pump which circulated everything and I thought: well, you know this is exactly what we need to grow large quantities of… of phage, because we could grow them in this and then we could inoculate them. And so I wrote to the Hoover company, they gave me a washing machine and… in which we grew things, and we could only grow them once, and then nothing grew and the reason for that unfortunately is that the phosphate media so corroded the aluminium that in fact the thing was just useless. But however it… it was developing all of these things to… to make the material and that is where I… that is also during this time I started to work with the electron microscope. Now the reason to do this was simply that I thought we could just take bacteriophage apart, you know, because it was like a little thing and we could do what we called an anatomical dissection of it. Whereas all the other people said, 'No you have to treat it as a mixture of proteins and go on to columns and separate them', so the whole idea that you could actually isolate chunks of it as a preliminary was… was certainly something that no one accepted at the time, and this, we were able to show, could be done, and we did it in very simple ways. For example I discovered that if you put bacteriophage at pH2 – just acidified it – it went into a mass, and when you digested it with a mixture of enzymes you were only left with one little component, namely what came to be called later was the tail sheath. And so we did a lot of experiments like this and then we could actually start to produce these… these pieces of the phage.

South African Sydney Brenner (1927-2019) 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.

Listeners: Lewis Wolpert

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.



Listen to Lewis Wolpert at Web of Stories



Tags: Cambridge, Southampton, MRC, Medical Research Council, 1956, 1957, The Cavendish Laboratory, Leslie Barnett

Duration: 5 minutes, 32 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 24 January 2008