John Sulston on Meeting Jim Watson
  John Sulston     Biography    
Recorded: 15 Jun 2005

I was trying to think when I first met Jim. I think it probably was through the worm meetings at Cold Spring Harbor. But I think I really only properly began to meet him when we became involved in the genome project. The thing is, you see, he’d already left. When I came to the LMB, Francis Crick was still there, and Sydney was there working with Francis, running the Cell Biology division, but Jim had long ago moved on. And so I knew of him, and I’d read his book, but I didn’t know him personally. So my first impressions when we began to get together was of somebody who was very forthright and he had very sometimes wild ideas, but I’d admired too for wanting to always push on by some means or another. Then he became quite closely—I mean I was quite closely involved with him because he personally was one of those who orchestrated the growth of the human genome project in Britain. Talking to the Wellcome Trust, talking to Aaron Klug at MRC, and so on. And then leading back to me. And I do remember actually having a fight with him on one occasion when he came to visit me at the Sanger Institute, and he wanted, asked to give sequence data or sort of give somebody preferential access to sequence data, who he was concerned about in Oxford. And I remember him saying to me that I was destroying somebody’s career by refusing to do this. And I said, “I’m sorry. We’re in the business of sequencing publicly. Everybody gets the sequence at the same time.” So at that point we really disagreed. And Jim, it’s very interesting, that Jim was actually denying his own premises about setting up the human genome project, that it would be completely open and free, by wanting somebody to get preferential access. Everybody has their own sort of patronage that they exercise, and so Jim did on that occasion. I mean I was director, I chose, my group chose what we would do, so it was easy for me to say no, it was not me alone. But he definitely tried to persuade me to slip something to the side there.

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