John Sulston on Craig Venter and Celera Genomics
  John Sulston     Biography    
Recorded: 15 Jun 2005

Celera’s no longer existent. Well not in that form. It did exist. Oh, well that’s very simple. That’s Tony White. The best source for that is an interview that Tony White gave to Forbes magazine in which he said that this company, Perkin Elmer, which made all the sequencing instruments, was a sad sack, meaning that its share price was doing very nicely but it wasn’t skyrocketing, which is the way investors always want share prices to do. I’m not a shareholder, I don’t do all this stuff, but I can see what happens. Again, the whole system, quite frankly, of shareholding, of economics in the present day, is all rubbish. The whole thing is rubbish. But that’s another story. The thing is Tony White was brought in to drive the fortunes of Perkin Elmer and he saw a win-win way as he imagined of doing it. And in fact he was right. He was the one winner out of this, because what he saw was they had a new instrument in the pipeline, the capillary instrument, the 3700. This was going to very much increase the rate of sequencing that one person could do, which meant that you lowered the costs. It was going to accelerate it. And he thought, well, why don’t we own the data out of these machines? We’re not making enough money just selling machines; we’ll own the data as well. What we’ll do is put a lot of these machines into a new institution, we’ll set it to sequence the human genome faster than the public domain was doing, and then we’ll sell the data. That was the idea. He had Mike Hunkapiller on board with this, and the two of them probably were instrumental in scheming this, and they hired Craig. They spotted Craig as being the man to lead it scientifically, and the three of them were really the architects of Celera. Now, it was a win-win in the sense that if it worked, it worked, and they would own the human genome and make a lot of money that way. But even if it didn’t work, they knew very well it would be the most powerful thing you could possibly do for the launch of the 3700. Now they didn’t win the first way, but they did win the second way. There was no advertising campaign for the 3700 whatever, because they put all these machines into Craig’s lab and all the rest of us had to buy them as well, whether we liked them or not, very fast. And of course that created a huge sort of surge of interest in this machine. So they launched a whole machine without an advertising campaign. So he won that one. But in the end, it didn’t do a lot of good for Perkin Elmer because the big scheme, the Celera scheme, collapsed. Perkin Elmer then broke up again into its individual bits, and the whole thing was not actually a very good venture, which just goes to show that even in business, maybe it’s worth following slightly moral lines.

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