John Sulston on Philosophy and the Human Genome Project
  John Sulston     Biography    
Recorded: 15 Jun 2005

GF: So what impact do you think our understanding of the genome has on our sense of ourselves as citizens of the universe, if you like? JS: Yes, it is a very interesting point you’ve got to. And I think we’re in some danger of overrating it. But nevertheless, it’s, we’re the first organism on this planet, as far as we know, and I think we do know, to have actually read out the instructions to make itself. The catch is we don’t understand them yet. And we don’t quite know what to do about it. But nevertheless it is, it is an absolute moment which …it defines a moment of the history of life on earth. I just hope that it’s as far away from the future as it is from the past, if you see what I mean. The trouble is that we are learning to be very destructive at the same time, in all sorts of ways. But if we can build on this moment and really understand the instructions, and understand the implications for us, and get over this sort of short term worries, obviously, but actually use them in a constructive way to improve medicine and to learn how life works and to de-manipulate, which we’re going to whether we like you, it’s going to happen. Then I think it’s an extraordinary moment. And in that sense it does compare well with other great eras of understanding. I think we’ve probably shouldn’t think though apart from this interesting philosophical point about reading out the code, the sequencing of the human genome is not in itself important. What is important is this whole episode in molecular biology starting in the half a century ago and going on at least a half century into the future, of really understanding how life operates. We are just learning the physical part. We got a very big hurdle to come next, or a very big new era of understanding which I think is really separate from the molecular biology part, which is, understanding what goes on in here [points to head]. About how actually, the…our brain gives us the feeling of having a mind. And it’s more than a feeling; it’s the way we operate. You know you have to assume that I am me, I have free will, I choose to do this or that, I think about what I’m going to do, I plan. All of those things are expressions of something going on in the brain which we don’t understand yet. And, although understanding the molecules may help a bit, really it’s a computation of a philosophical problem about how the whole thing goes together and makes us what we are. But if, and I think it is true that in a century or so we shall understand fairly well how that operates. That’s going to be another huge challenge of assimilation of the knowledge and the responsibility and the power that comes out of that responsibility to be used for the good in the future rather than for example manipulating other people in ways which are destructive. So…I do see science as being very, very, really a part of philosophy. Maybe the most important part of philosophy, in some ways. In that we discover whole areas which affect how we think about ourselves. A previous one 400 years ago is cosmology. Is discovering that the sun is here, and the earth goes round it. The earth is not sitting static at the center of the universe with the sun sort of on a backdrop. And just learning what the universe is like. The revolution and the assimilation required of human culture to come to terms with that, and the way the establishment of the day fought against it. And the way that, is…on the one hand a sort of descent into reductionism but on the other hand is clearly hugely mind expanding and leads us onto the next stage. All of these are things to look back on and realize, look how people assimilated those. See how we’re assimilating molecular biology now, and think how we’re going to assimilate the understanding of our minds in the future. Same persons but we’re intimately adaptable and we can do it.

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