John Sulston on Data Release in the Worm Community
  John Sulston     Biography    
Recorded: 15 Jun 2005

The mapping has always been independent of formal publication. We established this very early on, that what we had to do was to simply release it. And in fact it was the same when I was doing the lineage. I guess I’ve always done this pretty much, because I’ve never sort of worked on problems really, what I’ve worked on is this tool development. So the map, we developed more and more, sort of more straightforward, more automated ways of doing it, as the Internet developed. It wasn’t called the Internet then, but that’s what it was, the early stages. And just made the data available. Then when it was necessary, and this was really just for reasons of putting a marker down, we published. And when I say it was necessary, it was because other people – we shared all the technology with people – we suddenly found that somebody was about to publish something and was sort of claiming priority, so then at that point we had to write a paper and say, look, we did this. But I never regarded it as really the important part of the communication. That was the sort of social side of science that you really do have to establish your position, you know, who did what. But in terms of the communication, it was just free, open. And it’s what people now talk about as open access, which I totally agree with. I mean, I think that for this kind of fundamental data it’s the only way to go, and we, without thinking about it, just fell into that pattern.

The worm community is quite particular because nearly all of the leaders came through Sydney’s lab. Not quite all, but the majority. And the result was that the more senior people in the field during the ’70s and the ’80s actually knew each other personally because they worked together as postdocs or were very closely spun off from those postdoc labs. The result is that there was a level of trust. It was also small, the worm community, and it was also growing very fast. And all of these things sort of fitted together quite well in terms of trust and communication. So we were in a good position, I think, to establish free communication in the genome. It had been laid down actually, in quite a formal way, by the establishment of the Worm Breeder’s Gazette, which was in the mid ‘70s I guess, in the time when the first international worm meetings began to be run. In the Worm Breeder’s Gazette – it was a completely informal photocopied publication where people would just put in their latest work, or ideas, or just techniques, you know, it didn’t have to be a formal publication, and ask people’s opinion about things, ask for advice, ask if anybody had a solution to a problem. So it was the kind of thing—I think many fields have done this, many young, growing fields in science have done this from time to time: establishing an informal newsletter among the members. It’s something that works very well when you have a small community and tends to fall apart when communities get very large, with many thousands of people, like the large fields. So there we were, we had the precedent, but we knew it was particularly important for the genome, because these maps, and these clones that we were developing had absolutely no value unless they were used by other people. They were not solving any problems, they were not telling us how genes led to behavior in the worm in themselves, but they were very powerful tools for others to use to make their own contribution.

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