John Sulston on Human Genome Project: Public vs. Private Competition
  John Sulston     Biography    
Recorded: 15 Jun 2005

Well, yes, the big competition was over the human genome and whether or not the human genome would be private or public. I suppose—I mean this was not really a scientific competition. It’s presented as such both by some of the people involved and also particularly by the world’s press, who saw it as, because they were told they ought to think this by some of those people, that it was somehow a technical competition. It never was that. It was, basically, sequencing genomes is something that you can do, the question is how fast or quickly you can do it, or how cheaply if you like. And when people start making claims about how they’re going faster and cheaper than somebody else then you should look very carefully and see what their reasons for making those claims are. But it was completely outside science. It really is a matter of social politics, whether or not fundamental information of this kind should be something that’s shared by everybody, or whether it’s something that’s going to be locked up by a single corporation, which was trying to do it in this case, the Celera Corporation, and just rent it out to people for use. Now there’s actually a very powerful reason, whatever one’s personal politics are, and of course you know, scientists, like everybody else, you know can be very left or very right or somewhere in the middle. Quite apart from all that politics, there’s a very practical reason, scientific reason and practical reason for people and using data, why you cannot lock up fundamental information in this way. It’s as follows: one, if you’re kind of a socially conscious person who wants everybody to share in things, then you say, well, anyway, it’s bad to lock it up because then people will have to pay, and if people haven’t got the money they can’t have it. But more power than that, if you like, that affects everybody, is that when people lock it up and rent it to a subscriber, the subscriber has to pay, number one; also, the subscriber must agree not to re-distribute the data, ok. Now, if you’re dealing with something which is fundamental, like the human genome, everybody working on the human body, in any kind of biology in fact, needs to be able to have access— So, the question is, why is it so important that the human genome was in the public domain, where it was freely accessible to everybody? The alternative was that it would be privately owned by a corporation, in this case Celera. Well, two reasons. One is that Celera would have charged money – was already charging money to subscribers, and this meant that only people from the wealthier countries could afford to see the material. So people from developing countries pretty much couldn’t, wouldn’t be able to subscribe. Well this is ridiculous for something which is fundamental and is our common heritage, the human genome. But there’s another reason, even if one says, oh, well, that’s tough if people can’t pay, even if you say that – if you’re a scientist or if you care about scientific work being used for development, you should care about this. And that is that every subscriber has to not only pay, but also has to agree not to re-distribute the data. Now this means that they can’t publish their work properly. All they can do is to look – they can look for a gene and do something of their own, but they cannot publish a paper. Certainly they can’t publish a paper describing a whole family of genes in the human genome. Now we’re dealing with something very complex. We’re dealing with the instructions to make a human being, it’s 3,000 million base pairs long, and we don’t understand it very much at all. We don’t even know how many genes there are yet. We’re discovering new classes of genes. Look at this new class, you know, the micro genes, the tiny little genes, pieces of RNA that come out. Whole new discovery. That came out of the worm as well by the way, the discovery of the micro-RNA genes, but that’s another story. But the discovery of all this stuff depends on the fundamental information being in the public domain, accessible to all, so everybody can work on their own bit but then publish and compare notes, and it is impossible if it’s locked up in a private corporation. So that’s why we had to win and that’s why we did win. Yes, of course we can’t ever discover the facts of the matter, but I have two reasons for seeing it through my perspective as a distraction rather than a help. And I don’t think it did speed things up. And it’s really a Wellcome Trust perspective. The thing is, at the time when Craig Venter declared the existence of Celera, ’98, when he announced the funding, we already had a binding contract, really, with the Wellcome Trust that we would sequence one-sixth of the human genome, and we’d set the finish date for that in 2003. And I’d got enough experience by that point in running the Sanger Institute to be very confident we were going to meet that. Not because we were going in a linear, because one doesn’t go in a linear path to these things, but I knew what the learning curve was, I knew what shape we were in. And I knew that we were going to bring our cost down and we were going to speed things up and make it more efficient, and we had all the things in our development pipeline that were going to make that happen. There was no question we were going to meet that target. So that’s already one-sixth finished, that’s not just a shotgun, that’s finished human genome by 2003, and just this little Wellcome Trust thing over in Britain. So I knew just on that alone that the U.S. was not going to stand idly by and just potter along at a rate that wasn’t going to match the Brits, because after all at the very least Eric Lander and Bob Waterston would both want to match us. So that would automatically mean at the very minimum you got half the human genome finished by 2003. OK. But on top of that, we’d had pretty clear indications that the Wellcome Trust was quite interested in funding us for a bit more. And we were putting in for the second time, coincidentally, ’98, we were putting in for the second time a completely full, properly costed proposal for us to do a third of the human genome, OK, in the same time period. Now, again, the others were not going to stand idly by. If we’d all been left to our own devices, I believe that the Wellcome Trust would have given us that extra money, they’d have said go for the third, and I think Bob and Eric and all the other American labs, not to mention the Japanese, French, and Germans, would have followed suit because nobody would want to be left behind. So instead of this very sort of angry, confrontational way of driving it, we’d have driven in the natural collaborative way, which is what Bob Waterston and I had always done with the worm, which worked. So I think it’s nonsense that it helped in any way at all. I think it was just a complete waste of money and resources, Celera coming in.

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