Frederick Sanger

The Sanger Institute is named after double Nobel Laureate, Frederick Sanger. Fred pioneered the techniques that make possible the work we do at the Sanger Institute and shaped the way that genomics and biomedicine are explored here and worldwide. Fred and his group produced the first whole genome sequence, around 5000 base pairs in size. To honour these achievements, our founders chose to ask if the Institute might be named after Fred.

Sanger and the Institute that bears his name

Sadly Fred died on Tuesday 19 November 2013 at the age of 95. If anyone was the father of genomics it was this quiet, determined, modest man of strong opinions. He and his colleagues developed methods of DNA sequencing, in the 1970s, that are still used in genomic biology to this day. In light of these contributions to the science of genomics, the decision to name the Sanger Institute after Fred was an easy one. When John Sulston, the founding Director of the Institute, called Fred to ask if he would mind the Institute being named after him Sanger agreed, warning that "It had better be good".

Fred was invited to officially open the Sanger Centre on 4 October 1993 clearing the path for a new generation of geneticists to make their discoveries.

Early years and education

Fred was born towards the end of the First World War in Gloucestershire, UK. His father was a GP and influenced the young Fred, who "soon became interested in biology and developed a respect for the importance of science and the scientific method".

The MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology.

The MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology. [MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology]


Fred completed his first degree in 1939 at Cambridge University. Although he originally planned to study medicine, Fred specialised in biochemistry working among many of world's leading biochemists. As a conscientious objector during the war, he was allowed to continue his research for his PhD on "lysine metabolism and a more practical problem concerning the nitrogen of potatoes", which he completed in 1943.

Components of living matter

In the 1940s and 1950s, new methods were developed in separation and purification and it seemed that it might at last be possible to determine the chemical structure of protein molecules. Over several years, Fred developed methods to determine the order of the building blocks of the protein insulin; this work would lead to him being awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1958. The award was a spur to his own work: in 1962 he moved to the new UK Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology, the premier institution in the world for this new science.

Surrounded by researchers interested in DNA and genes, Fred was struck by the challenge of determining the order of bases in DNA, known as DNA sequencing. It was by this time clear that DNA was a linear code and that, although the code was being unravelled, no methods existed to read the code in even the simplest genome.

Over the next 15 years Fred's team developed several methods to sequence the nucleic acids DNA and RNA. Amongst the team, Fred especially mentions Bart Barrell, Alan Coulson and George Brownlee.

Seminal developments in genomics

Fred Sanger and his colleagues developed novel techniques in sequencing: the fundamental method of "reading" DNA using special bases called chain terminators, the use of very thin gel systems, the adaptation of efficient cloning methods to produce both DNA strands and the whole-genome shotgun were all developed by Fred and his group during the 1970s.

Whole genomes

Fred's group produced the first DNA whole genome sequence, for a virus called phiX174 that grows in bacteria, of just over 5000 base-pairs. They went on to sequence the first human genome of about 16,000 base-pairs. They chose the DNA in mitochondria which are small energy factories in all of our cells. In 1982 they sequenced the genome of an important virus and model organism for molecular biology, called bacteriophage lambda. To sequence this virus genome of about 48,000 base-pairs, Fred developed the whole-genome shotgun method.

Dideoxy: Sanger sequencing

In 1980 Fred was awarded his second Nobel Prize developing a technique still used today: "dideoxy" or "Sanger" sequencing. In this method, stretches of 500-800 bases at a time can be read. Fred finds it remarkable that a method he developed more than 30 years ago is still in use today, both by scientists at the Sanger Institute and around the world, to attack genomes up to 3,000,000,000 base-pairs long! Ever modest, he asserts his focus was on making the methods work and beating the problems and that larger implications seemed a long way off at the time.

Fred retired in 1983 and Fred devoted his time to domestic life (especially his garden) apart from a few forays to the Institute that bears his name to make sure all was as it should be.

Frederick Sanger

[Wellcome Library, London]

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