7th October 2002

Sir John Sulston awarded the 2002 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine

Nobel Prize for Professor Sir John Sulston

Nobel Prize for Professor Sir John Sulston

Sir John Sulston, former Director of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute said: "It's tremendously exciting for me because once again it reinforces the power of fundamental research. Our work on C. elegans at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology emphasized the benefits of sharing large amounts of information. We took a global approach to discover the mechanisms that led to the development of the worm.

"The same is true for genomics. When results are shared freely amongst the biological community, as has been done for the worm and the Human Genome Projects, specialist scientists can move much more rapidly towards their goals. This flow of information, which builds in strength as it circulates, benefits medicine. Remember, this only the start and we need dedicated people to translate the fundamental knowledge into real healthcare benefits.

"This is founded in Sydney Brenner's vision, in setting up the worm project -- an entirely new system for developmental biology. My contribution to this was learning to watch the cells dividing, and sometimes dying, under the microscope. We could actually see programmed cell death in action, so beautiful, so clear and so reproducible. These qualities meant we could predict the moment of death, and begin the search for mutants to understand how this happened.

"That's what Bob Horvitz did -- starting at our lab in Cambridge and then powering away at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, discovering what happens in these developmentally programmed cells. This was real fundamental work, but it showed that the genes involved have equivalents in humans that are involved in cancer, neurodegeneration and other diseases.

"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."

Dr Mike Dexter, Director of the Wellcome Trust said: "Sir John's achievements rank alongside our greatest biological and medical discoveries. His C. elegans work inspired a new era in scientific research, and the sequencing of its genome was the spark that initiated the international Human Genome Project."

"These were among of the many highlights in the career of this outstanding scientist, who provided unswerving and principled leadership during his time as Director of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute."

Dr Allan Bradley, who replaced Sir John as Director of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute said: "This is absolutely fantastic news! It's great for John and for British Science. I am thrilled that John's work has been honoured by the highest award. John has been instrumental in laying out several of the foundations upon which almost all experimental work in the worm depends. This began with the lineage map and extends to the genome sequence. John's vision in developing and persevering to finish the job is an inspiration to us all."

Notes to Editors

Further Information About Sir John Sulston

Nobel Prize for Professor Sir John Sulston

Nobel Prize for Professor Sir John Sulston

Sir John (60) graduated from Cambridge University in 1963. After completing his PhD on the chemical synthesis of DNA, he moved to the USA to study prebiotic chemistry (the origins of life on earth). In 1969 he joined Sydney Brenner's group at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge where he studied the biology and genetics of the nematode worm, Caenorhabditis elegans. He and his team collaborated with Bob Waterston at Washington University in the USA to sequence the genome of this model organism.

In 1992, Sulston was appointed the first Director of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridgeshire which made the UK's contribution to the international Human Genome Project. The Institute started with temporary labs and only 15 staff but now has a 600-strong workforce and state-of-the-art buildings. Following publication of the first draft sequence of the human genome in 2000 he was listed among the UK's 100 most powerful people by the Observer newspaper. Sir John received his knighthood for services to genome research in the 2001 New Year's Honours. He stepped down as Director in September 2000 but continues to work on C. elegans at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. He is the author with Georgina Ferry of The Common Thread: A Story of Science, Politics, Ethics and the Human Genome.

Academic Education and Appointments:

  • 1963 B.A. University of Cambridge, UK
  • 1966 Ph.D. University of Cambridge, UK
  • 1966-69 Postdoctoral fellow at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, San Diego, CA
  • 1969 Staff Scientist MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology
  • 1992-00 Director of the Sanger Centre, Cambridge, UK

Selected Honours and Awards:

  • 1986 Elected to the Royal Society
  • 1986 W. Alden Spencer Award
  • 1991 Gairdner Foundation International Award
  • 1996 Darwin Medal of the Royal Society
  • 1998 Rosenstiel Award
  • 2000 Pfizer Prize for Innovative Science
  • 2000 George W Beadle Medal
  • 2000 Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins Medal
  • 2001 Knight Bachelor in New Year's Honours list
  • 2001 The Edinburgh Medal 2001 Prince of Asturias Award (Spain)

Wellcome Trust Resources

Nobel Prize for Professor Sir John Sulston

Images of Sir John Sulston, former Director of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, are available to download here.

For more information on Sir John click here and for the the Human Genome project click here.

Related Links

The Nobel web site, the BBC report from 7th October and an article in the Guardian's G2 section


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