Dr Frederick Sanger’s development of the methods and means to read both the sequences of proteins and DNA are akin to such discoveries as the Rosetta Stone, in that they allowed us to read a previously unknown language.
Here it was the molecular language of DNA and proteins, which at time (the 1950s) were not clearly understood. Sanger’s work provided us with the tools needed to make use of the knowledge Watson, Crick and Franklin had obtained in the earlier discovery of the structure of DNA.
His two discoveries allowed us to determine the structure of any protein, and analyse its function and to map the human genome. Without Dr Sanger’s work, the Human Genome Project and all the information and insight it helps provide into how our bodies are made and work would not have happened.
Many of the disease treatments currently being developed for diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and cystic fibrosis would not be possible without understanding the structure of the genes and proteins involved.
Sanger set out to determine the structure of insulin, a hormone crucial to regulating our blood sugar levels. Understanding its structure was key to treating diabetes since it allowed us to produce synthetic insulin as a replacement.
Sanger achieved this by working out the sequence in which the building blocks of insulin, amino acids, were assembled into a peptide chain to make insulin. In solving this problem, Sanger developed a method that wasn’t restricted to insulin, and as a result other scientists were able to apply his technique to determine the amino acid sequences of other proteins.
This, in turn, helped us to understand the role of proteins in living cells and in disease processes, informing our understanding of how to design drugs to treat a variety of diseases as well as helping us understand how our body works.
Not content to stop there, Sanger turned his experimental approach to determining how the sequence of nucleotides, the components of DNA, was assembled. In so doing Sanger sequenced one of the first human genomes as a forerunner to the Human Genome Project.
Once the structure of DNA had been determined, Sanger provided a tool for scientists to read how sequences of nucleotides were arranged and so read the information contained in the DNA of any organism including our own. Reading this information gives us insight into how an organism lives and functions.
If it is a threat to us - such as a bacteria, virus or pest - we can find weaknesses to target to help control it. It allows us to improve the quality and quantity of plants and animals as sources of food.
Similarly, by reading the human genome, we gain an understanding of how different people are affected by diseases and illnesses. It opened up the means for identifying diseases and treating them earlier and so minimise the impact on our health.
In the future the knowledge of the human genome may allow doctors to provide individualised treatments tailored for each particular patient.
Thus Sanger’s methods laid the foundations for modern biotechnology. This equips us with a means to sustain sources of food to support a growing population, and to help maintain the health of that population through new drugs.
Sanger was very much a solver of problems and, in coming up with simple and uncomplicated solutions, allowed his work to be applied to other similar problems. It is therefore a fitting tribute and an apt reflection of his work that nearly 50 years after he developed the methods for DNA sequencing it is still being used today.