Frederick Sanger: The Biochemist Who Developed DNA Sequencing Techniques

The name Frederick Sanger may not be widely known, but his breakthroughs in the field of biochemistry have had immense consequences for medical research in the fields of genetics and disease. Sanger was a Nobel prize winning biochemist who developed novel techniques for sequencing DNA in the 1950s, which spurred developments in medicine and allowed us to understand the genetic code that defines us. In this article, we will look at the life and achievements of Frederick Sanger and explore how his contributions to science continue to resonate today.

Early Life and Education

Frederick Sanger was born on August 13th, 1917 in Rendcomb, Gloucestershire, England. He was the second of four sons born to Cicely (née Slee) and Frederick Sanger, a doctor. Sanger was an enthusiastic student, enjoying the outdoors and gardening. In 1929, he attended Bryanston School, graduating in 1936. He then went onto St John’s college at Cambridge University, completing a B.A. in natural sciences three years later.

In World War II, Sanger held a research post at the University of Oxford working on proteins related to the human immune system. He afterwards resumed his studies at Cambridge, with a particular interest in the molecular structures of proteins, obtaining his Ph.D. in 1947.

The Development of DNA Sequencing

Sanger left Cambridge to join the Medical Research Council’s newly created biochemistry unit, where he focused on deciphering the structure of proteins. Sanger was amongst the first scientists to make use of the newly developed technique of paper chromatography, the most widely used tool for detecting and separating individual molecules in amino acids and other protein components.

In 1953, he was asked to synthesize insulin, an artificial version of the natural hormone that controls sugar levels in the bloodstream. He succeeded in this task in 1955, becoming the first scientist to create a functioning, artificial version of a protein.

This success set the tone for Sanger’s real breakthrough: the development of sequencing techniques for DNA. Firstly, Sanger used paper chromatography to separate the individual components of DNA, the four base bases adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine. He then developed a method for measuring the relative amounts of nucleotides in DNA. This method allowed the order of the letters to be determined, laying the groundwork for modern DNA sequencing approaches.

Sanger won the coveted Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1980 for his achievements in DNA sequencing, the second time he had won the Nobel prize, having won it previously in 1958 for deciphering insulin.

The Impact of Sanger’s Research

The accomplishments of Frederick Sanger are difficult to fully appreciate today, as DNA sequencing has since become so commonplace in medical research. However, it is important to remember that when he began his work in the 1940s and ’50s, DNA was not yet understood to be the blueprint of life, and Sanger was amongst the leading scientists in uncovering its mysteries.

Sanger’s invention of methods to sequence DNA revolutionized research in the fields of genetics and disease. It is fair to say that without this development, the human genome project may never have been set in motion and DNA-based vaccines and treatments for illnesses such as cancer and HIV would never have been possible.

Sanger also developed a number of other biotechnological techniques, such as the Sanger sequencing method for reading short pieces of RNA or DNA. This method is still used today, albeit largely replaced by newer techniques.


The life and career of Frederick Sanger continues to be studied and celebrated today. The Sanger Institute, one of the largest centers for genomic science in the world, is named after him, and in August 2017 a memorial garden was opened at the University of Cambridge in his honour.

He was also a strong advocate for using his research outcomes for the good of humanity. He was noted to have said: “I have always felt that I should use my scientific knowledge and skills in the service of mankind.”

It is difficult to overestimate the contributions of Frederick Sanger to the field of biochemistry, and to science in general. His developments in DNA sequencing and other biotechnological methods continue to benefit scientific research today and will likely remain influential for many years to come.

Frederick Sanger was an innovative biochemist and a two-time Nobel prize laureate whose work has influenced generations of researchers. Through Sanger’s breakthroughs, we have been able to begin a deeper exploration and understanding of the genetic makeup of all living things. His legacy will remain long after his passing and continues to help us further our knowledge of the natural world.