John Sulston on 1989 Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory C. elegans Meeting
  John Sulston     Biography    
Recorded: 15 Jun 2005

The international worm meetings, the first one was held at Woods Hole, and then for many years they were held every two years at Cold Spring Harbor as the worm community grew. One of them, the crucial one for us in the genome, was in 1989. Now, in the year before 1989, the early part of that year, we’d heard, or Bob Horvitz had started to speak to us about interest that was being shown in the worm genome, particularly by Jim Watson. Now at that point, Jim Watson, I think had already been anointed as the head of the Human Genome Project. This was something that had been talked about for a number of years, starting from the meeting in Santa Cruz and then some various meetings in Cold Spring Harbor.

we were all primed to come to the meeting in 1989 with a view to selling the worm map for worm sequencing and specifically to Jim. We were also advertising it to our own community of course, because we were pleased with the way the map had developed. Anyway, we printed out the map in advance and carried these scrolls of paper over and pinned them up on the back of Blackford auditorium, and there they sat during the meeting. Jim came down to see it and he said, “You know, you can’t see it without wanting to sequence it, can you?” And that was good. Then it was followed up at the end of the worm meeting, we went over for a meeting in Jim’s office and discussed how to actually get the sequencing done. And of course, the background is that Jim as head of the Human Genome Project we knew was interested in getting other things off the ground to sequence because he knew quite rightly that this is the way the technology would be driven. The human was too big and daunting to tackle right off. What we needed, what the field needed were smaller, enthusiastic teams that would drive the sequencing of other organisms, and we were absolutely now ready to drive the sequencing of the worm. It was the natural next step. So we went around and around it, and I thought that, oh, there was going to be loads of money in the Human Genome Project, surely they could sequence the worm. I thought we would just go and get on with it. So sometime during the meeting I vocalized this and I said, “Well, look, Jim, you know, $100 million would do it. Just give us the money and we’ll get it sequenced for you, no problem.” And so Jim said, “John, we don’t do things that way in this country.” Well of course, you don’t do it that way in any country. In fact, I thought in America they did things that way. I thought Americans were brave, you know, and they really jumped in and did things properly. But no, no, no, it would all got to go through all sorts of pilots and this and that and the other. And of course in the end, we did it. We did it for a lot less than $100 million, so he saved some money by deferring it a bit.

John Sulston was born in Buckinghamshire on 24 March 1942, the son of a Church of England minister and a schoolteacher. A childhood obsession with how things worked – whether animate or inanimate – led to a degree in Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, specialising in organic chemistry. He stayed on to do a PhD in the synthesis of oligonucleotides, short stretches of RNA. It was a postdoctoral position at the Salk Institute in California that opened Sulston's eyes to the uncharted frontiers where biology and chemistry meet. He worked with Leslie Orgel, a British theoretical chemist who had become absorbed in the problem of how life began. On Orgel's recommendation, Francis Crick then recruited Sulston for the Medical Research Council's Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge.

He arrived there in 1969, and joined the laboratory of Sydney Brenner. Brenner had set out to understand the sequence of events from gene to whole, living, behaving organism by studying the tiny nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans.

For more than 20 years Sulston worked on the worm, charting for the first time the sequence of cell divisions that lead from a fertilised egg to an adult worm, identifying genetic mutations that interfere with normal development, and then going on to map and sequence the 100 million letters of DNA code that make up the worm genome.

The success of this last project, carried out jointly with Bob Waterston of Washington University in St Louis, led the Wellcome Trust to put Sulston at the head of the Sanger Centre, established in 1993 to make a major contribution to the international Human Genome Project. There he led a team of several hundred scientists who completed the sequencing of one third of the 3-billion-letter human genome, together with the genomes of many important pathogens such as the tuberculosis and leprosy bacilli.

As the leader of one of the four principal sequencing centres in the world, Sulston was a major influence on the Human Genome Project as a whole, particularly in establishing the principle that the information in the genome should be freely released so that all could benefit.

In 2000 Sulston resigned as director of the Sanger Centre (now the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute), though he retained an office there for a few more years, continuing to work on the Human Genome Project publications and on outstanding problems with the worm genome.

Anxious to promote his views on free release and global inequality, he published his own account of the 'science, politics and ethics' of the Human Genome Project*, while adding his voice to influential bodies such as the Human Genetics Commission and an advisory group on intellectual property set up by the Royal Society. The same year he gave the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures for children on the topic 'The secrets of life'.

In 2002, John Sulston was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine jointly with Sydney Brenner and Bob Horvitz, for the work they had done in understanding the development of the worm and particularly the role of programmed cell death.

The Common Thread by John Sulston and Georgina Ferry, Bantam Press 2002.

Taken from: 9/2/09 - AC Written by: Georgina Ferry John Sulston-Biography