October 19, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Dr Frederick Sanger, known as the 'father of genomics', died last month. The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute stands in his honour …

Dr Sanger

Dr Frederick Sanger, known by some as the ‘father of genomics,’ passed away on November 19th. The British Biochemist who had been awarded not one, but two Nobel Prizes for his work in the field, died at the age of 95, leaving three children.

Dr Sanger was born in Rendcomb, Gloucestershire in 1918 and studied biochemistry at St. John’s College, Cambridge. He worked on his doctorate during the Second World War and, after receiving it in 1943, stayed on in Cambridge to investigate the protein composition of bovine insulin.
His first success was in the complete amino acid sequencing of the two polypeptide chains on insulin. From this he deduced that proteins have a determined chemical composition and in 1958, he received his first Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the breakthrough.

Following from this, he became the head of the Protein Chemistry division at Cambridge, and he began looking into sequencing RNA and DNA. Although he was beaten by researchers in the United States to sequencing the first ever tRNA molecule, he did develop the Sanger Method for sequencing long stretches of DNA rapidly and accurately and in 1980, he received his Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his development, this time shared with Dr Walter Gilbert and Paul Berg. Gilbert and Sanger were awarded the Prize “for their contributions concerning the determination of base sequences in nucleic acids.” The Sanger Method was first used to sequence human mitochondrial DNA in its entirety, and in subsequent years it was employed for the sequencing of the human genome.

It was in 1992 that the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council founded the Sanger Centre, now known as the Sanger Institute; a research centre dedicated to the study of genomics and genetics. Located on the Wellcome Trust Genome Campus just outside Cambridge, the institute is only a few miles from where Sanger had settled into retirement a few years previously. This centre went on to make the largest single contribution to the final genome sequence produced by the Human Genome Project in 2003 and is still internationally recognised as a centre for genetic research.

He spent the last years of his life gardening in his home in Cambridgeshire. Described by the journal Science as “the most self-effacing person you could hope to meet,” he was a modest man who felt himself to be “just a chap who messed about in a lab.” He declined a knighthood, but did accept the award of the Order of Merit, in 1986.