Frederick Sanger: Scientist whose pioneering work on DNA sequencing paved the way for mapping the human genome

 

Only four people in history have been awarded the Nobel Prize twice. One of them was the biochemist Fred Sanger, who pioneered research into the human genome but who described himself as "just a chap who messed about in his lab".

He won his first Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1958 for his work on determining the structure of insulin and the second 22 years later for his work on DNA. With his colleagues he developed a rapid method of DNA sequencing – a way to "read" DNA – which became the forerunner for the work on mapping the human genome.

Sanger was born in 1918 in Rendcombe in Gloucestershire, the second son of a GP, Frederick, and his wife Cicely. His father had worked as an Anglican medical missionary in China but had returned to England because of ill health. He converted to Quakerism, and Fred and his older brother Theodore were brought up as Quakers.

Thanks to his father and brother, Sanger said, "I soon became interested in biology and developed a respect for the importance of science and the scientific method." He was educated at Bryanston School, and although he originally intended to follow his father into medicine, he graduated from St John's College, Cambridge in natural sciences in 1939. He described himself as "probably above average but not an outstanding scholar."

As an undergraduate his beliefs were strongly influenced by his Quaker upbringing. He was a pacifist and a member of the Peace Pledge Union, and it was through his involvement with the Cambridge Scientists' Anti-War Group that he met his future wife, Joan Howe, who was studying economics at Newnham College.

He joined Cambridge's Department of Biochemistry in 1940, and as a conscientious objector was allowed to continue his PhD. Initially, under Bill Pirie, he investigated whether edible protein could be obtained from grass, but when Pirie left Sanger began working with Albert Neuberger on the metabolism of the amino acid lysine and a problem relating to the nitrogen content of potatoes; he was awarded his PhD in 1943. Only then did he receive a stipend; until then he supported himself thanks to money from his mother, who was the daughter of a wealthy cotton manufacturer.

New methods of separation and purification made it possible to determine the chemical structure of protein molecules, and Sanger developed methods to determine the order of the building blocks of insulin; this resulted in the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1958. In 1962 he moved to the new UK Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology.

Following his work on insulin he developed further methods for studying proteins, particularly the active centres of some enzymes, and in about 1960 took on the challenge of determining the order of bases in DNA, known as DNA sequencing. It was known by then that DNA was a linear code – James Watson and Francis Crick had worked out the structure of DNA's double helix and revealed that it held a linear code of base pairs (C, G, T and A), but there was no way to read it, and over the next 15 years Sanger and his team – notably Bart Barrell, Alan Coulson and George Brownlee – developed methods to sequence DNA and RNA.

The team produced the first DNA whole genome sequence, 5,000 letters long, for a virus called phiX174 which grows in bacteria, and went on to sequence the first human genetic material, the 16,000-letter sequence of DNA in mitochondria, the energy factories in our cells. "Dideoxy" or "Sanger" sequencing is still used today to read DNA code – including the 3bn base pairs of the first complete human genome sequence, published in 2003.

In 1980, Walter Gilbert and Sanger shared half of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry "for their contributions concerning the determination of base sequences in nucleic acids". The other half was awarded to Paul Berg for his studies of the biochemistry of nucleic acids.

Sanger said he found it remarkable that a method he developed more than 30 years ago was still in use. Ever modest, he insisted that his focus was always on making the methods work and solving the immediate problems; the greater implications, he said, seemed a long way off at the time. He retired in 1983 to Swaffham Bulbeck near Cambridge. In 1993 the Wellcome Trust named their Sanger Centre in Cambridge after him, and it became the home of the Human Genome Project. He rejected a knighthood, he said, because he didn't want to be called "Sir", but later accepted an Order of Merit.

In 2007 the British Biochemical Society was given a grant by the Wellcome Trust to catalogue and preserve the 35 laboratory notebooks in which Sanger had recorded his research from 1944 to 1983. In reporting it, Science noted that Sanger was "the most self-effacing person you could hope to meet". Apart from his work, he said his main interests were gardening and "messing about in boats". µ CHRIS MAUME

I got to know Fred Sanger some 60 years ago, writes Tam Dalyell, for the mundane reason that he had rooms as a Fellow at the bottom of a staircase in King's College, Cambridge, and I, as an undergraduate, had a room at the top. Being made jointly responsible by the senior tutor, Patrick Wilkinson, for popping our heads round their doors at night to make sure that two resident elderly fellows, AC Pigou and EM Forster, were OK, brought us together.

Wilkinson complained to me that this was the only College responsibility that Sanger would take on; Sanger drily observed to me: "If I get into the mire of College affairs my work suffers." Indeed, he was the most focussed young man in Cambridge that any of us had met. At the celebration for the 25th anniversary of the discovery of monoclonal antibodies, in the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, when Sanger was in his eighties, I said to our mutual friend, the Nobel Prize-winner Cesar Milstein, in Fred's presence, that he was the most focussed of men. Milstein replied with a gentle smile, "Still is."

Frederick Sanger, biochemist: born Rendcombe, Gloucestershire 13 August 1918; Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge 1961–83; Nobel Prize for Chemistry, 1958, (jointly) 1980; Royal Medal, Royal Society 1969; Copley Medal, Royal Society 1977; CBE 1963, CH 1981, OM 1986; married 1940 M Joan Howe (two sons, one daughter); died 19 November 2013.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
fashionHealth concerns and 'pornified' perceptions have made women more conscious at the beach
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmHe was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
footballA colourful discussion on tactics, the merits of the English footballer and rebuilding Manchester United
Life and Style
Sainsbury's could roll the lorries out across its whole fleet if they are successful
tech
Travel
The shipping news: a typical Snoozebox construction
travelSpending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette
filmHow live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences
Environment
Neil Young performing at Hyde Park, London, earlier this month
environment
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Coordinator

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

Embedded Linux Engineer

£40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

£50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz