John Sulston on Future of Genomics
  John Sulston     Biography    
Recorded: 15 Jun 2005

JS: Of the field of the genome? I don’t think the genome is a field. I think the genome is a tool. OK? So the future of the genome is all of biology. And in fact people recognize this, there was – I think it’s slightly passed now – but there was a verve for talking about functional genomics. What does functional genomics mean? It means biology, because the genome is the information to run the whole thing. Another way of looking at it, though, and it’s a danger, is that because people, the groups that did genomics, got a lot of money, built big labs, built reputations, there’s a tendency for people to feel, well, “omics” is a good thing. And so you get proteomics, you get metabolomics, you get so on and so on, transcriptomics, and to some degree all of these areas are fine. But they’re all tools. They’re all just descriptions of certain things you do in a massively parallel way on biological information. In the end we want to know how life works, how biology works. People are expressing this now by talking about systems biology, for example. Again, what do they mean? They mean biology, but thinking about the whole thing in a holistic way. So I don’t actually believe in the future of this field, as such, but what do I feel is that it’s given biology a whole set of really powerful new tools to work on the old problems, which is how things actually are put together and work, and I think it’s all going just fine. One project which I think does have a lot of merit in itself is that field of proteomics which is aiming to discover all protein structures, or at least representative types of all the protein structures. And this I think is a good thing, because we do quite naturally need to know how the information from the genome, the linear information, goes into the linear information of proteins, which of course we know, but then how the proteins make the three-dimensional structures which glue themselves together to make the body. And I think that’s a tremendous area and it’s something that can be tackled head-on, I think, by doing more and more and more structures. So that’s a good aim. It’s not a finite aim. That’s the difficulty with all of these other “omics”-es. Sequencing a genome is a finite aim. You know in advance roughly how long it is, you’ve just got to go and do it. All the others are completely open-ended because there’s an infinite number of protein structures with all of the variants and the modifications and so on. You can’t really put an end to that process. But nevertheless it’s good to have a go and to get as far as you can.

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