Frederick Sanger: an inspiration to scientists everywhere

Frederick Sanger, 1918-2013

It was sadly announced that Frederick Sanger, a legendary British biochemist died on 19th November 2013 at the age of 95.

Frederick Sanger’s name may not be a household name but his name is a “lab-hold” name. Within the scientific community, especially in biology, he is someone every student will know the name of. (One of the few big names I remember from my undergraduate lectures!).

For most scientists a Nobel Prize is a far-off dream but for Sanger, his research was so exceptional that he is the only person to have won two Nobel prizes for Chemistry and one of four people to have won two Nobel prizes. Despite this success I have heard him described as one of the most humble, down-to-earth people you will ever meet, and an article in Science in 2007 described him as “the most self-effacing person you could ever hope to meet”.

But why is he so famous? What was his work?

Sanger’s research looked at two of the fundamental components of the machinery of life; Proteins and Nucleic Acids (e.g. DNA) , described as “the orchestra which plays the various expressions of life”1.  Nucleic acids are the components of our genetic information and proteins make up the machinery that ‘reads’ our genetic code, makes products required for normal functions (e.g. enzymes that break up food in our stomachs), and makes components that are ‘building- blocks’ for organisms.

Most people are familiar with the idea that protein is found in our food but specific proteins are not widely known.  A specific protein that may be familiar to many people, especially those living with diabetes, is insulin. Insulin is produced in the pancreas and is a protein which tells the body that it has lots of sugar and it needs to store it. In people with Type 1 diabetes insulin isn’t made and to regulate their sugar levels they need to take synthetic insulin. Sanger studied the structure of insulin and worked out that it was made of a specific sequence of small components, called amino acids. His work on insulin showed that proteins are not largely undefined and that they in fact have a specific structure, which is now a fundamental biological concept. This work also helped to understand what insulin is and it is thought to have possibly helped in the understanding of how DNA encodes proteins, proposed by Francis Crick in 1958. This work on Insulin earned Sanger his first Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1958.

The sequencing of the human genome made national headlines in 2003. The sequencing of the first human genome has laid the foundations for research into the differences between individuals, disease, human development and evolution. Again Sanger’s research quietly lies in the background.  His pioneering work in DNA sequencing led to the development of the Sanger Sequencing method which was used to sequence the human genome as it was much better at ‘reading’ longer regions of DNA than the existing methods at the time. For his work on Nucleic Acids, Sanger was awarded a half Nobel Prize for Chemistry shared with Walter Gilbert in 1980.

Both his work in Proteins and Nucleic Acids were major breakthroughs and laid the foundations for years of ground-breaking research which has followed. His work has led to huge leaps in our understanding in the basic components of the machinery of life which has far from being obscure and unimportant to the non-scientific community, has led to increased understanding of human biology and medicine which influences all of us.

Fredrick Sanger (1918-2013) was and still is a true inspiration to all scientists.

1Professor G Malmström in the Nobel Prize for Chemistry speech, 1980

by Annis Richardson- a third year PhD student in the lab of Prof Enrico Coen

A few SVC members expressed their goodbyes on twitter:

RIP Sanger


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