Frederick (Fred) Sanger, the brilliant scientist and father of genomics, has died aged 95. Describing himself simply as ‘a chap who messed about in his lab’, Sanger was a double Nobel Prize winner who paved the way to modern genomics.
The son of a GP, Sanger studied biochemistry at Cambridge, completing his degree in 1939. He was a conscientious objector and was able to continue studying for his PhD during the second world war, completing it in 1943. Over the 1940s and 1950s he worked on determining the sequence of the amino acids in the protein insulin, earning him his first Novel Prize for Chemistry in 1958 for his work on protein structure, particularly insulin.
He moved to the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in 1962, where he was one of the founders, and became fascinated by the then still fairly new science of DNA. He and his team developed methods to sequence both RNA and DNA, now known as the Sanger method, and the whole-genome shotgun method. Sanger’s team was the first to produce a whole genome sequence, for a virus called phiX174.
These sequencing techniques opened up the world of genomics, making a key contribution to the science behind the Human Genome project. This also led to his second Nobel Prize for chemistry, in 1980, making him the only Briton to have won the Nobel Prize twice, the only scientist to receive two Nobel Prizes in chemistry, and one of only four people in the world to have the distinction of receiving two Nobel Prizes. He received the Order of Merit, but declined a knighthood, not wanting to be called Sir.
Described as a quiet, modest and determined man, the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute was named after him in 1993, to which his response was apparently “It had better be good”. He retired in 1983 aged 65, to enjoy time “messing about in boats”.
Without Sanger, so much of modern genetics and genomics would be possible, or would certainly have been significantly delayed. To learn more about Fred Sanger, read his wonderful personal account of his research career, published in 1988 – Sequences, sequences and sequences (pdf).
Suzanne Elvidge is a freelance science, biopharma, business and health writer with more than 20 years of experience. She has written for a range of online and print publications including FierceBiomarkers, FierceDrugDelivery, European Life Science, the Journal of Life Sciences (now the Burrill Report), In Vivo, Life Science Leader, Nature Biotechnology, New Scientist, PR Week and Start-Up. She specialises in writing on pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, healthcare, science, lifestyle and green living, but can write on any topic given enough tea and chocolate biscuits. She lives just beyond the neck end of nowhere in the Peak District with her second-hand bookseller husband and two second-hand cats.