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The MRC lab at Cambridge: X-ray crystallography


Anecdotes from the MRC lab
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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Now I didn't pursue virus structure myself, because it was just a means to getting to the phage, but of course that sort of revolutionised how people could look at particles of all sizes, and for us it was just a tool that was very important, because also it generated I think in biology the ability through – of course the phage work itself – to start to think now about macromolecular assemblies which I think have become the important underlying thing in cell biology. The molecular biology of the cell is how bunches of molecules get together and interact and this was one of the methods that could do it. However, we did go on and we had a hilarious time here. Seymour Benzer felt the cold very severely. In fact, he was ready to go home. He came in… in October, and they were so cold here he was ready to go home, but I dissuaded him. I used to come and make a fire for him, and, you know, help him to keep warm, but Seymour's the only person that I know walks around with a sweater in Death Valley, you know the temperature's 120°F, he's always been cold. He always likes to sleep late. He's an owl. That is, he stays up all night. I have in varying parts of my life been an owl and a lark, and sometimes both, that is get up early and go to bed late, but Seymour was this, and I remember they called me up… Time Magazine called me that year because Beadle won the Nobel Prize, and they called me from London, and they said could they speak to… to Dr Benzer, and I said, 'Dr Benzer is still asleep'. Then they said, 'Did I know where to find Doctor Garrod?' So I said, 'Just hold on a moment, I'll check up'. Now I have to tell you what this is about. This is Archibald Garrod who's thought… thought to be… you know who is the real founder of modern biochemical genetics, the physician who deduced alkaptonuria as a biochemical defect and of course had long since died, and what I went to look up was his obituary to see where he was buried, you see, and so I could give them directions to the Highgate Cemetery where I thought they might be able to get him. In fact, I said, 'You're probably more likely to wake him up than you are Seymour Benzer.' So… so Seymour did this. Then Seymour, George and I and Sewell Champe, who was a student that Seymour brought with him for this, we decided to have a lunch club. It was… of course food in England was atrocious in those days. You had the choice between a bad Chinese lunch and a terrible Chinese lunch, so we decided we would form a lunch club and we would cook for each other. And one person would go around, collect all the ingredients and then make a meal which we would all eat and such was the impulse to outdo each other that in fact people would start cooking two days before – George in particular, who was a gourmet…

[Q] George?

George Streisinger was a gourmet, and he actually went to Yarmouth to get mussels one day, so we could have the moules marinière, and this got to the stage we're spending more time on preparing these grand lunches, and of course what happened was Seymour killed it all because he came in one day when it was his turn with a rather shy smile on his face and produced four packets of fish and chips, said he'd got up too late to prepare the lunch, so that was the end of the lunch.

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: Death Valley, Time Magazine, Nobel Prize, London, Highgate cemetery, UK, Yarmouth, Seymour Benzer, George Beadle, Archibald Garrod, George Streisinger, Sewell Champe

Duration: 4 minutes, 26 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 24 January 2008