R.I.P. Frederick Sanger

Frederick Sanger
Frederick Sanger

Yesterday Frederick Sanger died. He was a British biochemist described by many as one of a fathers of genetics and one of the greatest scientists in the world and not only of his generation.

Frederick Sanger was born on August 13, 1918 at Rendcomb, a small village in Gloucestershire, England. In 1936 he went to study natural sciences at St John’s College, Cambridge. Having problems in physics, he replaced it with physiology, later he started studying biochemistry, a relatively new field, also because in Cambridge at the time there were some of the best teachers in the world in that field.

His parents were Quakers and brought him up with the pacifism of that faith so Frederick Sanger was exempted from military service as a conscientious objector. He was active as a pacifist and thanks to his involvement in the anti-war Cambridge group he met Joan Howe, who was studying economics. The two of them got married and had two sons and a daughter.

Frederick Sanger obtained a doctorate in 1943 and started his outstanding research in the field of biochemistry. He started working on insulin and after a few years was able to determine the complete amino acid sequence of the two polypeptide chains of bovine insulin. These studies lead Sanger to discover the secrets of the structure of insulin. For his work on the structure of proteins, especially that of insulin, he received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1958.

Since 1951, Frederick Sanger had been a member of the external staff at the Medical Research Council. In 1962 the Laboratory of Molecular Biology was opened and he started working there as the head of the protein chemistry division. His main work concerned the sequencing of RNA molecules.

After a few years, Frederick Sanger started devising techniques for DNA sequencing. For their contributions concerning the determination of base sequences in nucleic acids, he and Walter Gilbert received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1980. Sanger was the fourth person ever to receive two Nobel Prizes, is still the only one to have received two in the field of chemistry.

Frederick Sanger retired in 1983. In 1992 the Sanger Centre, now called the Sanger Institute, was founded with the goal to continue the research of the great scientist in the field of the human genome sequencing.

The research by Frederick Sanger has been instrumental in the Human Genome Project and for all other projects in the field of molecular biology. The legacy he leaves in the field of genetics is really huge.

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