John Sulston on Being Awarded the Nobel Prize
  John Sulston     Biography    
Recorded: 15 Jun 2005

The thing is I’ve never been a proper scientist. I’ve never planned a career. I’ve never been any good at organizing science. I just do stuff, that’s all. And the result was that I never saw a sort of pathway of this kind. Now, I know many people do, and it’s not immodest of them to do so. If one really has a well-organized life and career, and one has a good lab, you know, and lots of good people, it is actually part of the game to be ambitious. And I suppose, although I didn’t get it then about the Nobel, I certainly, once I did finally, against my will, but nevertheless found myself in the position of directing a sizeable number of people, then I was very ambitious for them, and I was anxious that the Sanger Centre would be world-class. I was anxious it would do good science, I was anxious that people would be happy there and enjoy doing the good science. So I was ambitious in that way, and the result is that just lately I have begun to realize that I must put people up for prizes and this kind of thing a little bit. I still don’t like doing it, but nevertheless I suppose I am somewhat in that game. Now many people like Bob Horvitz, for example, are in a very different position. I mean it’s a very typical American career path to at quite a young age find oneself with administrative responsibility for a sizeable group and to spend quite a lot of one’s time actually writing the grants and so on to make that work. And I missed out on all that, not because nobody does it in Britain, but because, as I say, I never took myself seriously as a scientist at all.

Narrator: So where this news catch you? Where were you?

It came on my voicemail on my desk at the Sanger Centre. And that was very nice, because this is a fairly mad thing to—this message is a pretty mad one to receive. There is always the possibility that somebody’s playing a joke, you know, so it was quite nice to receive it as a voicemail and be able to think about it and then phone the guy back for confirmation rather than having to immediately from cold deal with it.It was very low-key. It was just the secretary of the Physiology or Medicine Board who just said, would I phone them back because I had won a share in that year’s Nobel Prize. I thought it was very nice low-key Swedish thing to do; to leave a voicemail.

Yeah, well I called them back and got the confirmation, and then I called Daphne, who was rather fed up because she doesn’t really approve of this kind of thing. Then, immediately, you know, everything is shifted onto another political dimension, because you have a short time. The reason the Swedes are rather relaxed about it is that they absolutely keep it under the wraps until just half an hour before the announcement. So in other words, there isn’t much time for any damage to occur, unlike all the other prizes I’m aware of, where the inside group gets to know quite a long time before the announcement. In the case of Sweden, nobody knows. In fact, I’ve never been involved in the workings, but I understand that really the decision is not made until that morning. So in a formal sense, there is no decision until half an hour before or an hour before. Then it’s not too bad. For them, I mean, they don’t have to have very high security, so they can get away with the voicemails. But then, for the recipient, what immediately happens is that you’re in a political situation of one kind or another because all the press are going to start coming in. The thing is, I’m not naïve about Nobel Prizes, in the sense that having been in a lab which has possibly the highest concentration of Nobel Prizes in the world, the old LMB. When I went there, I think it was already 5, was it, and it’s now up to 13, just this one little MRC unit in Cambridge. And so it became a routine thing, you know. I mean, you know, I watched the prizes come and go, I watched Fred getting his second Nobel Prize for DNA sequencing, he got the first one for protein, I watched Aaron get his prize. And so it went on, we just had these champagne celebrations, and every year you thought, oh, well, who’s getting the Nobel Prize this year? So I saw how it happened, but I also saw how important people thought it was. It was not a light thing, it was…And so I knew that we would have to celebrate, I knew we would have to get the lab involved. And I had a little bit of a quandary, actually, because my Nobel Prize, my share in this Nobel Prize, is nothing whatever to do with what I was doing at Sanger Centre, it’s nothing to do with genomes. It was all to do with that work back in the ‘70s of the nematode cell lineage, which I hadn’t thought – while I thought it was useful, I certainly didn’t think it was Nobel Prize stuff. And indeed it wasn’t. I mean, the thing is that it was because it was part of the worm package which had proved itself so successful that Sydney had dreamt up; and its particular aspect Bob Horvitz had carried on with studying the genes that cause cell death, programmed cell death in the worm. But I was in there because I’d observed the cell death for the first time and through my lineage had facilitated the work that came afterwards. So anyway, it was a throwback, and really this prize belonged to the LMB. And this is what the LMB thought, and I knew they’d think that. So the moment it came through, I said those guys are going to be on the phone, they’re going to want to have the champagne celebration down there and claim it for theirs. So I said, “Look, I’m director of the Sanger Centre. Well, was. I wasn’t by then, but you know…my old lab. No, I think we should claim it for us.” So we said yeah, we’ll have the celebration there. And the LMB guys very nicely agreed and they came over to celebrate with us.

You hear from so many people. And I think the striking thing about this prize, compared with other prizes, is that you hear as much from people not in science as in science. I hadn’t realized what a significance it is for all the world. The Nobels really have this position that everybody knows about them and they’re ?? as some kind of a social distinction as well as a scientific distinction. So I heard from all sorts of people I had not heard from in a long time as well as lots and lots of people that I didn’t know at all who just wanted to write and congratulate or make a comment about the work because it was Nobel.

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