John Sulston on Frederick Sanger
  John Sulston     Biography    
Recorded: 15 Jun 2005

JS: Fred is unique, very unusual scientist. He’s got two Nobel Prizes; that makes him unique already almost. The curious thing for me in Fred is that for some reason, which I really can’t fathom now, Fred was my own personal childhood hero when I was at school, as a scientist. You know, people say, what scientists did you know about when you were at school – it’s Fred Sanger. And I have no idea quite why. I mean, it’s true that the activities of the guys at Cambridge, the whole group of people, were well known to us schoolboys if we were at all involved in science, through the various, you know, little magazines that people put out. But I just knew that I liked the style of Fred, I think, because he was a quiet guy, he just got on with it. And of course that’s exactly how he is. He’s very much somebody who does his science, he doesn’t—he’s not flamboyant, and indeed he retired from the lab straight away when he got to retiring age. And he now lives still in his bungalow a little way from here and gardens and continues his life. So he’s to me the epitome of somebody who gets things done but doesn’t see any need to cause a lot of trouble doing it, which is quite rare. But I found him completely inspirational, and obviously so did Alan, and somehow Alan Coulson, having worked with Fred and then working with me, you know we were very much bound up with one another somehow. And I suppose for that reason that we asked, that was one of the more frightening things I’ve ever had to do with Fred, is to ring him up and ask if we could use his name for the new lab we were setting up at Hinxton, which at the time had no name. This was in 1992. To ask him whether it could be called the Sanger Centre. And he said, “Well, OK, but it had better be good.” And then I rather wished I hadn’t asked. [Laughter] I hope it’s all right. I also had to tell him when I stepped down as director, and he said “That was disgraceful.” Because I stepped down early, you see, I didn’t wait for retiring age. But that was because—I think it was a good thing to do actually, because I realized that I maybe managed to lead as director and building the thing up, but I didn’t feel like, to continue now it had to sort of, more continue as a normal complex organization, as labs do when they get big. It’s a big place. And I just didn’t feel that organizational ability, so it was time for somebody else to take over. And eight years is long enough to run anything anyway, I think. It’s good to change.

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