Top Award to Sanger Scientist
Dr Richard Durbin delivered the Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran Award Lecture on 26 October 2004. The Award is made each year to "a person who has applied science and technology for the benefit of society." Previous recipients include Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the "father of the internet", James Dyson, the inventor of the cyclone vacuum cleaner, and Tim Smit, the Chief Executive of the Eden Project.
Dr Durbin's citation by The Foundation for Science and Technology states that the award has been made for "his development of software to allow the global research community to access genome sequences in a convenient and efficient way".
The development of the Human Genome Project - the international effort to write out the chemical letters in human DNA - resulted in a massive production of DNA sequence as the three billion letters were copied. There was a desperate need to make sense of these data and to provide efficient internet methods to allow researchers access.
One of the most important tenets of the HGP was that all the information in our shared genome should be available to all for free and without restriction. That ethic posed huge difficulties for the teams led by Dr Durbin as they sorted and analysed the outpouring of DNA sequence and designed new systems fulfil the ethic.
"We had worked on a similar but much smaller problem in decoding the genome of the nematode worm C. elegans. As we started to produce sequence, research teams around the world demanded access to the latest results as quickly as possible: those demands were echoed much more strongly with the Human Genome Project."
"Our commitment to making the human genome sequence freely available could be honoured only by developing databases and programs to deliver large amounts of searchable information to hundreds of thousands of users. That we succeeded is testimony to the efforts of teams here at The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and throughout the HGP."
Dr Richard Durbin, Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute
The human genome is equivalent to a 750,000 sheets of printed A4 paper. Buried within that are clues to our health and to disease. Genes - the sections of DNA that contain instructions to make a protein - occupy only some 1-2 per cent of our genome.
Worse for the developers, the human genome sequence was produced as a series of working documents, each new version updating the previous and containing more and better information, much like updates to an encyclopaedia.
A huge effort was made to develop programs and databases to sort the huge amounts of DNA sequence produced, to track the changes, to store it, to assemble it into a coherent genome and to identify genes. Just as important, different research teams had different needs and aims, so finding one solution for all was a tremendous challenge.
Today, the Sanger Institute runs a suite of resources based around a common theme - called Ensembl - that brings together genome sequence, genetic information, variation information, biological information and disease information into one remarkably swift package.
For biology, a new era started with the human genome sequence. For computer biology - as with most computer solutions - solving one problem allows users to see other possibilities. Today, the demands are more intense than ever, as more genome information is acquired and as more sophisticated interpretation is layered on top.
From joining The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute when there was a handful of staff and only six computers to the 700-strong team today using thousands of computers, Dr Durbin is confident the Institute can still deliver.
"We have teams that are dedicated to working for the biomedical community - to making a difference. Each new development in healthcare that uses the human genome sequence reflects the long hours and hard work by all of us in the Human Genome Project. That is quietly satisfying."
Dr Richard Durbin, Sanger Institute