John Sulston

John Sulston was the founding Director of the Institute and provided leadership until the completion of the draft human genome sequence in 2000.

During this time he was instrumental in ensuring that, to speed progress, the results of research should be made freely and publically available. This culture of data sharing remains a resolute part of the Institute's policy to this day.

John Sulston's notebook drawings of nematode worm cell division.

John Sulston's notebook drawings of nematode worm cell division. [John Sulston]


Sulston and the Sanger Institute

John Sulston was the founding Director of the Sanger Centre, now named the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. He participated in choosing the Genome Campus site in Hinxton for the Institute and was among the handful of staff that arrived on site in early 1993. There they embarked upon their primary task "to play a substantial role in the sequencing, annotation and interpretation of the human genome".

John Sulston led the Institute through a historically critical period of genetic discovery, exploiting and developing sequencing methods established by Fred Sanger over the previous decades, until the announcement of the completion of the draft human genome sequence in 2000.

This was not only a scientific achievement but, perhaps more importantly, a political achievement. Along the way, John and his colleagues had changed the landscape of research such that scientists working on projects like the human genome would make the fruits of their hard labour available for free as swiftly as possible. In future and across the globe, researchers would strive to share vast amounts of data for the public good.

Education and career

John Sulston was born in 1942; his father was a vicar and his mother an English teacher. John had a childhood interest in the mechanical workings of organisms and described his scientific education as a "natural progression from childhood interests".

Pembroke College, Cambridge.

Pembroke College, Cambridge. []

Accompanying this curiosity was a strong sense of moral obligation; it is this combination that would lead the self-confessed "nerd turned hippie" to make such a unique contribution to genetic science.

In 1963, John completed his undergraduate degree in Organic Chemistry at Pembroke College in Cambridge. He achieved a 2:1 and went on to join Cambridge University's Department of Chemistry where he gained a PhD for his work on nucleotide chemistry. John is modest about his achievements and describes an academic environment that allowed him to develop his scientific ideas to a higher level, "It was the 60s, a time of university expansion, the doors were open and a 2:1 was good enough to get me in. I couldn't have done it now".

After completing his PhD, John spent three years as a postdoctoral fellow at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California, before returning to Cambridge to work in the Medical Research Council's Laboratory of Molecular Biology. Here, he dedicated himself to detailing the development of a nematode worm, from egg to adult. John and his colleagues spent many years watching cells divide in worm eggs and embryos, seeking to determine the fate of each and every cell, eventually producing the complete map of the cellular development of an organism. Ultimately, he was awarded a share in the 2002 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, an honour he shared with his fellow worm pioneers, Sydney Brenner and Robert Horvitz.

The drive to sequence the genome came from the need to pin down the genetic instructions for building a worm. Using mutagenesis as a disruptive tool, nematode biologists had by this time identified many genes that were somehow involved in development. But locating these significant genes in the developmental programme of the worm's DNA, and isolating them so that they could be investigated further, was proving slow. In order to speed things up, John initiated the process of mapping the worm genome at the Laboratory for Molecular Biology, but for completion this project would require more space and continued funding.

Map to sequence

Around the same time, the Human Genome Project was initiated in the United States. John felt that the UK could and should make a contribution, exploiting the national expertise in genome sequencing, much of which was in Cambridge. John led an application to the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council for a new institute to finish the nematode and embark on the human genome. Funding was awarded in the summer of 1992. John was appointed the founding Director

He spent more than a dozen years mapping and sequencing the nematode worm genome, laying the foundation for mapping the Human Genome. The complete nematode genome sequence was published in 1998 and was the first DNA sequence of an animal. John Sulston's primary US collaborator in both the worm sequencing and the Human Genome Project was Robert Waterston, from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. Together, they were determined that the lessons learnt from the worm project would be translated in sequencing the human genome.

John Sulston argued that "the worm worked so well because the community held an ethos of sharing, just as the public genome projects have from the beginning. We gave all our results to others as soon as we had them. From sharing, discovery is accelerated in the community. Research is hastened when people share results freely".

The Human Genome Project: collaboration and data sharing

John was convinced that the work on the worm proved that large scale mapping of the human genome was feasible and that it provided a model for the Human Genome Project. The Sanger Institute, which formed the British arm of the sequencing effort, worked in close collaboration with Washington University, St Louis, Missouri, exploiting the Internet to share the database. A total of 20 centres would ultimately play a part in the International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium. John was an important figure in fostering the atmosphere that made such large scale collaboration between scientists possible, in what could be a competitive and secretive pursuit.

John Sulston and his successor, Allan Bradley.

John Sulston and his successor, Allan Bradley. [Wellcome Library, London]


The draft sequence is published and John Sulston steps down as Director

The draft sequence was published in 2000 in Nature: a culmination of almost 50 years of DNA and genetic science. John stepped down as Director of the Sanger Institute, handing over to his successor, Allan Bradley. Much remained to be done to take the HGP to completion and John continued to work on the Sanger Centre's contribution to the human genome (almost one third) until the announcement of the gold standard sequence in 2003. The completion of the HGP is a testament to the efforts of the Wellcome Trust and the drive and determination of the Sanger team.

Since the Sanger Institute

Since leaving his position at the Sanger Institute, John has been awarded a share in the Nobel Prize for his work on the nematode worm. He has continued his efforts to unite ethics and scientific practice by arguing that scientists ought to take a Hippocratic Oath, taken a leadership role at the Human Genetics Commission and more recently, by agreeing to chair Manchester University's Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation in 2007.

Sir John Sulston

[Wellcome Library, London]

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