John Sulston on The Computer Programming Years 1984-1986
  John Sulston     Biography    
Recorded: 15 Jun 2005

Then we specialized again, and this must have been – I suppose it was around the time that Bob Waterston came, or a little before, I expect, it was 1984 – we absolutely had to put all this stuff on the computer. You see when we began, 1983 or so, it was terribly exciting just to get one match between the clones and say “Oh, look, there’s a bar code and a bar code and they match!” We put it together, and we drew it in a book, two lines, to represent the clones, and drew it in the book. But of course, we counted up an awful lot of clones. We ended up with 17,000 of these clones and you couldn’t draw them all in books with pencil and eraser, that wouldn’t work. So somebody had to make a computer program to handle it. There was nobody else to do it, so I learned Fortran programming, and I spent two years, really solid years, just programming, and produced what really served us very well as a computer graphics interactive program that allowed us to display the clones, and of course then you put in various levels of automation for handling them and making the jigsaw come together more easily. So you can see we—and it’s something I’ve always enjoyed doing: you have a problem and you learn the skills you need to solve the problem. You don’t sort of sit around saying, “Oh, well, I haven’t got so and so, I can’t do it.” That’s frustrating. So the frustration leads to learning to do things for yourself.

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

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