Biology & Natural History

(Brenner, Sydney) Wilkes, Maurice | Memoirs of a Computer Pioneer

  • First edition, first printing. From the library of Nobel Prize-winning biologist and early computing proponent Sydney Brenner, with his ownership inscription, “Sydney Brenner, La Jolla, Jan 2004” in purple ink on the front free endpaper.

    Sydney Brenner (1927 - ) has been a leader in the field of genetics almost from the moment he received his doctorate at Oxford in 1954. He joined Francis Crick’s laboratory in 1956, and they did groundbreaking research on how DNA is decoded by cells. Brenner proposed that the nucleotides which comprise DNA (adenine, guanine, thiamine and cytosine) are read by the cell in sets of three called codons, with each codon representing an amino acid (for example, three adenines in a row is the codon for the amino acid lysine). A gene is simply a string of codons that directs the production of a protein molecule from individual amino acids. He also correctly predicted the existence of messenger RNA, the molecule that carries the genetic code from the nucleus to the ribosomes, where the translation process occurs.

    Following this work, it was Brenner’s efforts to establish a new laboratory organism for the study of genetics that led to his Nobel Prize. “Beginning in 1965, he began to lay the groundwork to make C. elegans, a small, transparent nematode, into a major model organism for genetics, neurobiology and developmental biology research. As a direct result of his original vision, this tiny worm became the first animal for which the complete cell lineage and entire neuronal wiring were known. Today, more than 1,000 investigators are studying C. elegans, and Brenner’s work was further honored when a closely related nematode was named Caenorhabditis brenneri” (Salk Institute biography).

    The subject of this biography, computing pioneer Maurice Wilkes (1913-2010), was responsible for the creation of the first stored program computer, Cambridge University’s EDSAC. This book would have been of particular interest to Brenner, who was a proponent of computing from early in his career. He taught himself the TRAC language in the 1960s and used it to write the first program to compare nucleic acid sequences. Soon he had “become so skilled at assembly language programming that I didn’t think twice about altering a Fortran compiler to use with our disc operating system... All this work became valueless when this machine — by then slow, small and obsolete — was junked... I resolved never to become so involved with computers again, but I knew they were going to be essential tools in biology... Some years ago, when I took up computing again, I decided to do better than the first time around. So I learnt the C language and wrote an interpreter for TRAC in C. I have a large suite of programs written in an even flashier TRAC language that I use to study sequences.” (Loose Ends column, Current Biology vol. 5, no 11, 1995).

  • Cambridge, MA & London: The MIT Press, 1985.

    Octavo. Original blue cloth, titles to spine in silver. With the dust jacket. Illustrations from photos within the text. Cloth slightly rubbed and faded along the edges. An excellent copy in the lightly rubbed jacket with some minor creasing and two shallow scratches down the lower panel.