John Sulston on 1998 Cold Spring Harbor Genome Meeting: Funding the Human Genome Project
  John Sulston     Biography    
Recorded: 15 Jun 2005

JS: Yes, so ’98, 1998 was an extraordinary year, and the genome meeting at Cold Spring Harbor that year was absolutely the focus for all the politics around the human genome. What happened was that just before that meeting, Craig Venter and Mike Hunkapiller had held a press conference in which they announced that they had industrial funding for a new venture. It didn’t even have a name. It was so new and so exciting it wasn’t even named at that point. So I think most of us called it the Venterpiller because we had to call it something. So this was heard about very quickly in London. Michael Morgan got to hear about it because the aim of this new venture was to sequence the human genome much faster than the silly old public enterprise, much faster than the U.S. government plodding along with its labs. And they were going to—well, they already quite knew what they were going to do. They were simultaneously going to give it all away and make lots of money. And it was quite extraordinary that these two would ever be imagined to be the same thing but that’s what was stated. They held a very high profile meeting, press conference, and then they held a high profile meeting at Cold Spring Harbor, I think, just before the main meeting. Meanwhile, and this was a most extraordinary coincidence, on the Wednesday of that week, that very same week, while this was going on in Cold Spring Harbor, a number of us, Richard Durbin, Jane, and I think were meeting with the governors of the Wellcome Trust because for the second time we’d put in the papers to ask for a doubling of our funding, funding on the human genome, that is, so that we would go from doing a sixth of the human genome to a third of the human genome, which would really, quite independently of anything that was going on in America, would make sure that we drove the pace and made it happen faster than it otherwise would. So at the same time the news came through Michael Morgan to the governors that there was a challenge in America to the whole public project with this private corporation doing it for them, and at the same time our papers were on the table. And there we were, me with the little, hands caught overhead, speaking to the governors saying, “Look, this is absolutely critical now, you must fund this, please, because otherwise things are going to be lost.” Michael Morgan, actually, was fearful they might not do it, that they might take the view that, if an American corporation was going to do it, they could save their money and do something else with it instead and they might not give us the money at all. In the end they jumped the way they should and they said yes, this is a challenge; we’ll give the Sanger Centre the extra money. So the very next day Michael Morgan and I were able to get on the plane, fly to the Cold Spring Harbor meeting, where everybody was pretty despondent because in America, this was a serious situation. Because the American sequencing effort depends on appropriations from Congress, through NIH, also through DOE, and if enough Congressmen were persuaded that actually an American industry was going to do a really good, fast job, and make money into the bargain, then they would obviously not want these appropriations to carry on. But if the Brits were going to do a third of the human genome, that would kind of put the U.S. government into a bad light, wouldn’t it? If the Brits did it publicly and the Americans were just sort of doing it in a corporation. So I think it really made a big difference to political thinking in Washington that day, the fact that we were coming in with guaranteed funding from a charitable source, which meant all the data would go in the public domain. And this really strengthened Francis Collins’s hand, strengthened Harold Varmus’s hand, in arguing for the appropriations to continue. And that’s what happened. Anyway, one morning at the meeting Michael Morgan got an extra slot and he made a wonderful, passionate speech about how we had this money and if necessary, the Wellcome Trust in order to ensure the whole genome would be in the public domain would if necessary fund a half, or if necessary would fund even more! And he sort of said to me on the airplane, he said, “Well, could you do the whole thing?” And I said, “Yeah, sure, just give me the money. We’ll manage it somehow.” So he was ready to do this. And then I followed up a bit and I said, you know, this will really make sure that we really get it through. And everybody was very, very excited and they jumped up and down and stamped. It was a very exciting moment actually. MP: So your announcement came after Venter’s. JS: Oh, yes. No, Venter began his operations at the weekend, and it was a carefully orchestrated series of public announcements, there were big articles, Nicholas Wade was trying to put in The New York Times, and over the weekend, everybody was saying, prone to saying, that’s it, that’s the end of the public thing, you know, maybe they can go off and sequence the mouse or something different. And the thing is Francis and Harold were sort of going along with this in the sense that they were not opposing it. They couldn’t. They were American public employees, they could not be seen—I mean, remember you have the Bayh-Dole Act, you have the whole thing set up, you could not have public employees saying that American industry is a bad idea and that their aims are a bad idea. So it really was up to us to come in and alter that balance, redress the balance, and allow the public domain to hold its position. So…the…the nineteen…the 1998 meeting at Cold Spring Harbor was crucial. Just before, Craig Venter and Mike Hunkapiller had announced that Celera would be formed and would get money to sequence the human genome faster. And this situation was being accepted necessarily by the people running the genome effort in America, the public one. They had to accept collaboration. At the same time in London, the Wellcome Trust were presented with the possibility of us at the Sanger Institute increasing our share of the human genome, which would put pressure on. The Wellcome Trust voted, the governors of the Wellcome Trust voted for that, and it ended with Michael Morgan and me flying over the Atlantic to announce at Cold Spring Harbor that Wellcome Trust had increased their funding. People were very excited because it completely changed the balance and allowed once again the public domain to feel confident that it could keep the funding and go through and do the whole operation in public.

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