John Sulston on Current Interests: Ethical and Social Policy Issues
  John Sulston     Biography    
Recorded: 15 Jun 2005

I would like to have the world being peaceful and lovely. In a practical way, I—there’s little that I can do, but because of the learning of the necessity for the human genome to be open access and equally available to everybody, I want that to be the same for everything. I want in particular, in the things I’ve been involved in a more practical, political way, is more even distribution of health care. And so I subscribe to, I support, campaigns like the one that for example I’d been in now, I was down in London last week, the Medecins Sans Frontieres campaign. It’s in parallel with many others about access to medicines to the poor. I think it’s a very good thing that people are beginning to do research on neglected diseases, that’s to find drugs which have just remained static for a century, half century, for things like sleeping sickness. Because there is no way in our market-driven society that we can actually fund these things. So the result is that there are a number of public-private partnerships being built up. Many of them are funded largely by the Gates Foundation, but one of the things is to get government money in there, to get the G8 agreeing, that’s to say the richer economies of the world agreeing that we have to do this, and that we have to cure neglected diseases, we have to lift people out of poverty. It’s something that everybody is now paying lip service to and it still has to be translated into practice. And I think as far as I’m concerned, I go a little beyond that, and it seems perfectly clear that after all, poverty and disease, they’re just diseases of imbalance of wealth. And what we have to do is to make the world a more even playing field, and this means…it means making trade fair, for example. It means that things like the notorious TRIPS agreement of the World Trade Organization, which is always giving power to the person who’s already rich. The way the patent laws operate. There’s nothing wrong with patents. Patents are an absolutely fine thing, but it’s the way they’re used as tools to make the rich remain rich and be richer still to increase the wealth gap between the rich and poor of the earth. And both the European Union and the United States are equally culpable in working always for their own advantage without looking to the long term, without looking to the future of a world that is somehow got to be made more even. And what are they going to do? How high are the U.S. and the E.U. going to build their walls around their system. How high are you going to make the fence that runs across the south of the U.S. and the south of Europe to stop people trying to get in? We can’t do that. We can’t live in a world like that. And I feel very intensely about this in the light of all this ridiculous worry about security now. You know this so-called war on terror? The war on terror is absolute crap. There is no such thing as terror in the way that you can have war on. The only war we should be having is war on poverty, because that’s where this lack of security comes from. And yet it’s not being seen. There is no leadership where, particularly, I mean obviously the current U.S. administration is an aberration and will go away eventually. But quite deeply in the ballot boxes of the rich countries we have a problem, you know, people inevitably sort of want as much as they can get now, for themselves, you know they like things and all the rest of it. And somehow to change the political system, not to have a revolution, but to change it enough so that people work for the secure future of mankind rather their own little bit of it. So in other words, it’s globalization with justice and we, you know, got globalization in terms of wealth in terms of trade for the rich. We have not got globalization of justice. And so that, putting it all together I suppose is what I’m interested in. But nobody can work alone. All you can do is to, is to support and try and form groupings. So maybe it’s not so different from the Human Genome Project. It’s just forming groupings again that can work together for this end.

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