John Sulston on Involvement with the Human Genome Project
  John Sulston     Biography    
Recorded: 15 Jun 2005

I got involved with the Human Genome Project purely because I was involved with the nematode genome, and because Bob Waterston’s lab and my lab jointly were very successful in the early ‘90s in sequencing the nematode genome. And so we automatically kind of got drawn in to the group of people who were tackling the larger genome, the human. But then the mechanism by which it happened in my case was that I, along with Bob, was looking for funding, but I was looking for funding in this country to continue the nematode genome. In the course of that funding, we famously got involved with Bourke, Rick Bourke, who was a leather goods manufacturer who’d made his fortune in New York and was looking to invest in various things. Lee Hood put us in touch. So we had this aborted episode where we actually went into discussions with Rick Bourke about whether he was going to fund our genome sequencing. It turned out of course he wasn’t going to in the end and we pulled out. But then, partly as a result of that discussion, there was a lot of stuff in the papers about it, Jim Watson got to hear about it, and Jim Watson realized that it was important for not only Bob to get funded by NIH but for me to get funded in this country if we were going to go on with the nematode sequencing and join the human genome sequencing project. So he in fact influenced people over here, including the Wellcome Trust in particular, to support me, and in the end we ended up starting a whole new lab and the Wellcome Trust built what is now the Sanger Institute out at Hinxton. Very big investment for them. But it was interesting how things come together because there was our ambition to sequence the nematode, there was Jim’s commitment to run the Human Genome Project and incorporate the nematode genome and then later involve us in the human. And there was the fact that the Wellcome Trust had just come into a lot of money by doing some good share dealings. It had increased its income very, very much just at the time when the Human Genome Project was coming into being. And the result was, they were looking for a big project. They were ready to, if the opportunity presented, to build a new lab and all that. So it was absolutely perfect. It was a marriage of a funder’s cash and the opportunity, the scientific opportunity to use it in a productive way. And I think the Wellcome Trust was pretty happy about it because it made a big splash for them, which meant that instead of just having more money they actually had a whole new big project that they could advertise. So the year that we were looking for the money when we interacted with Rick Bourke, it was the winter of ’91 through to the spring of ’92, and it all really flashed by in that period. And by the spring of ’92 we had this grant application in to the Wellcome Trust. By the summer of ’92 it had been decided that at this end we would get this money to start a new lab and sequence the nematode in it with MRC funding and also use Wellcome Trust funding to start sequencing the human genome over here in Britain. This of course then reacted back on what Bob was doing and what all of NIH was doing because now the Brits were seriously involved and there was now a very good sort of competition as it were, or at least a credibility, a leverage, between the two sides across the Atlantic, which encouraged, I think, the development from NIH as well to put serious money into their centers.

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