John Sulston on Human Genome Project: International Collaborations and Meetings
  John Sulston     Biography    
Recorded: 15 Jun 2005

Well, the number one all the way through was Bob Waterston’s center, because we just grew together. And it was also a formality. Bob Waterston and I made the agreement in 1986 that we would share everything fifty-fifty. We did that for the nematode map, then we reaffirmed that for the nematode sequencing, and we reaffirmed it really for the human genome. But by that time we were drawn into a larger grouping. In fact the key meeting for the larger grouping was in 1996 in Bermuda, and that was the occasion when all the major sequencing labs, working in the public domain that is, all around the world, came together. I think Bob and I really led, but it was already set there, and Jim was obviously keen, Michael Morgan was keen, from the Trust, Francis Collins. We all wanted to do it, but we really led I think in the afternoon when it was affirmed and laid down as a rule that people working in this group would make all their work public. And it was absolutely essential, because you see the human genome had higher stakes than the nematode genome. The nematode genome, ok, it’s academic, you know, academic rivalry, but not kind of high-stakes in terms of medicine and certainly not high-stakes in terms of money. Now, the human genome had medicine and money. It was really driving people’s ambition. It was absolutely essential that for this group that was going to develop the fundamental information of the human genome, we would have complete cooperation and complete open access for everybody. And that was agreed in Bermuda in 1996.

Of course, the other practicalities, and the reason why we were there, it was basically to do horse-trading. Say, “Well, you do this bit, I’ll do that bit,” you know.

Oh, well, Eric Lander was there, there was Richard Gibbs, there was also Craig Venter, who had his own lab at TIGR, and a number of other American labs. I could name them, but I can’t remember, you know, who was there and who wasn’t, but it was just a whole series of groups. And then there were others from Germany and France, Jean Weissenbach, and from Germany it was André Rosenthal. And there must have been Japanese representation, and I can’t honestly remember who was there from Japan at that time.

OK, this is the Santa Cruz meeting in 1985, that’s the meeting that Robert Sinsheimer convened, with advice. And the idea was to actually make an assault on the human genome. So the concept was there in 1985 that the human genome should and would be sequenced. Nobody quite knew how at that point, but they thought it was time to start thinking about it. In fact, Sydney was invited and didn’t go, I think, and I think it was really in his place that Bart Barrell and I both attended. I talked about what we were doing with the worm map. We’d really only just started then. But I was very gung-ho. I felt quite sure that again, if people gave me some money, that I’d be able to map the human genome. I didn’t see any great problem about that.

Well…I went to one. This was late ‘80s sometime. There was one that I think we recount in the Common Threads where Jim challenged me about whether—Jim was arguing that there should be a supremo. This was before the Human Genome Project had been set up, and Jim I think was arguing there should be a supremo, and he asked me what I thought. And I actually argued the other way, because I was used to the idea that we touch from the worm, that things were better off in a sort of collaborative, distributive way. Jim argued that you had to have somebody passionate about finishing it off. And then I accused him of having the ambition to be that one, which of course was absolutely correct. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just a bystander. At that point I had no interest in the human genome. Not that I didn’t think it was a good thing to do, but my thing was the nematode, and I thought that’s something we could deal with and it was where my effort was. And all the stuff about human is that I just got dragged into meetings every now and again to give comments; same with the Sinsheimer meeting, really.

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