John Sulston on Working at MRC’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology
  John Sulston     Biography    
Recorded: 15 Jun 2005

Yes, I’m perhaps unusual in that I tend to be very single-minded. I’m not very interested, I find, in doing lots of things. For that reason, I’ve had almost no students or postdocs. I’m not very good at paying attention to other people’s problems. I’ve been associated with an awful lot of students and postdocs, but always as a colleague, not as a mentor very much. I think the thing is that any one time, I only am interested in one thing. So at one time, I was interested in the mapping, for example; I was interested in how we were going to get these clones to grow, you know, in 96-well plates at the time, and how we were going to purify them, how we would get good data out, so I’d just be thinking about that. Then another time, I’d be thinking about how we were going to clone them. This was after Alan came, because Alan was doing the stuff with the plates and I was doing the stuff with the cloning, and I was just single-minded about that. And after a year or two, all of that was running well, and we had the clones and Alan was processing them, but then we didn’t have a computer program. So then at that point I really switched into doing completely computer programming. In fact I remember we used to have worm seminars in the group, because we were not the only worm people in LMB of course. It was a large group, including other people like Jonathan Hodgkin, John White, and so on. And we used to have weekly gatherings, and I remember at some point I started to apologize and I said, “Look, I really can’t talk to the group anymore because I’m not doing anything you’re interested in.” Because all I was doing was computer programming. And I wasn’t willing to somehow give talks about other people’s work. I just wanted to do what I was doing with the programming. If they didn’t want to hear about that, and they didn’t, because who cared about that, you know, it’s just a tool, then I—so I said I won’t give talks anymore.

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