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Frederick Sanger, Father of DNA Sequencing, Dead at 95

Sanger is one of only three scientists to have been awarded two Nobel Prizes in the sciences



National Institute of Health/Wikimedia Commons

Frederick Sanger, who won two Nobel Prizes for his work on DNA and protein sequencing, died yesterday, according to a spokesperson at the Laboratory for Molecular Biology at the University of Cambridge, UK. He was 95.

The chemist won the 1958 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for developing a method to determine the complete amino acid sequence of insulin. Twenty-two years later, the Nobel Committee awarded him the 1980 prize in Chemistry for discovering a way to determine the ordered sequence of DNA molecules. An adaptation of this method — known as Sanger sequencing — was used to sequence the human genome. He is only scientist to have won two Chemistry Nobels. Just two other scientists have been awarded two Nobel Prizes in the sciences: Marie Curie (Physics in 1903 and Chemistry in 1911) and John Bardeen (Physics in 1956 and 1972).

After the announcement of a draft human genome sequence in 2001, Sanger penned an essay for Nature Medicine on the history of DNA sequencing. “When we started working on DNA I don’t believe we were thinking about sequencing the entire human genome — perhaps in our wildest dreams but certainly not within the next 30 years,” Sanger wrote.

His archived lab notes were recently made available by the Wellcome Collection.

Update 12:53 p.m

The Medical Research Council (MRC) Laboratory for Molecular Biology (LMB), where Sanger spent much of his career, has posted an obituary encapsulating his professional life. It also notes that Sanger turned down a knighthood because he did not want to be called “Sir”.

Jeremy Farrar, the new director of the Wellcome Trust (which named its Sanger Institute after him), has issued a statement: “I am deeply saddened to learn of the death of Fred Sanger, one of the greatest scientists of any generation and the only Briton to have been honored with two Nobel Prizes. Fred can fairly be called the father of the genomic era: his work laid the foundations of humanity’s ability to read and understand the genetic code, which has revolutionized biology and is today contributing to transformative improvements in healthcare.”

Update 1:40 p.m.

J. Craig Venter — whose privately funded effort to sequence the human genome was criticized by Sanger for limiting access — has chimed in via Twitter.

One of the most important scientists of the 20th century! Fred Sanger has died. He twice changed the direction of the scientific world.

— J. Craig Venter (@JCVenter) November 20, 2013

Update 2:00 p.m.

Science journalist and regular Nature contributor Ed Yong has a rather cryptic tribute on his blog: “CGCATTCCGTTTCGCGAAGATAGCGCGAACGGCGAACGC.” This tool will help translate.

Update 2:30 p.m.

University of Oxford neuroscientist and former MRC chief Colin Blakemore had this to say: “[H]e was a disarmingly modest man, who once said: ‘I was just a chap who messed about in his lab’. The journal Science rightly described him as ‘the most self-effacing person you could hope to meet’. Fred Sanger was a real hero of twentieth-century British science.”

Richard Henderson, former director of the LMB, said: “He was a superb hands-on scientist with outstanding judgment and skill, and an extremely modest yet encouraging way of interacting with his younger colleagues. I particularly remember one young scientist who had asked Fred for advice being told ‘I think you should try harder’. The example he set will continue to motivate young scientists even now he has gone.”

This article is reproduced with permission from the magazine Nature. The article was first published on November 20, 2013.

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