Sulston, John (Edward) 1942-

views updated

SULSTON, John (Edward) 1942-


Male. Born March 27, 1942, in Cambridge, England; son of the Reverend Canon Arthur Edward Aubrey and Josephine Muriel Frearson (Blocksidge) Sulston; married Daphne Edith Bate, 1966; children: one son, one daughter. Education: Pembroke College, University of Cambridge, B.A., 1963, Ph.D. 1966; Salk Institute for Biological Studies, San Diego, CA, postdoctoral fellow, 1966-69. Hobbies and other interests: Gardening, walking.


Home—39 Mingle Lane, Stapleford, Cambridge CB2 5BG, England. Office—c/o Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Hinxton, Cambridge CB10 1SA, England.


Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, England, staff scientist, 1969-92; Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Cambridge, England, director, 1992-2000, research scientist, 2000—.


European Molecular Biology Organization (1989—), Human Genetics Commission.


Elected to Royal Society, 1986; W. Alden Spencer Award (jointly with Bob Horvitz), College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University, 1986; Gairdner Foundation International Award (jointly with Sydney Brenner), 1991; Darwin Medal, Royal Society, 1996; Rosenstiel Award (jointly with Bob Horvitz), Brandeis University, 1998; Pfizer Prize for Innovative Science, 2000; George W. Beadle Medal, 2000; Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins Medal, 2000; named to Observer newspaper's list of United Kingdom's 100 Most Powerful People, 2000, for work on first-draft sequence of the human genome; honorary fellow, Pembroke College, Cambridge, 2000; honorary Sc.D., Trinity College, Dublin, 2000; Pfizer Prize for Innovative Science, 2000; named knight bachelor for services to genome research, 2001; Edinburgh Medal, 2001; Prince of Asturias Award (Spain), 2001; Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (with Sydney Brenner and H. Robert Horvitz), 2002.


(With Georgina Ferry) The Common Thread: A Story of Science, Politics, Ethics, and the Human Genome, National Academies Press (Washington, DC), 2002.

Contributor of numerous articles to scientific journals.


British research scientist and Nobel Prize winner John Sulston became famous for his work on the Human Genome Project, one of the largest international scientific efforts ever undertaken. Completion of a draft of the project, which involved sequencing the three billion letters in human DNA, was announced in 2000 by President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. One-third of the mapping was done at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge, England, where Sulston was director.

Sulston had come to the institute in 1992 from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, where he began work in the late 1960s mapping the cell lineage and genetic structure of the tiny nematode worm, C. elegans, which had only 100 million bases in its genetic code. The project became his life's work, and the MRC eventually collaborated with scientists at Washington University in the United States on mapping the genome of this tiny creature, which would serve as a model for the Human Genome Project. One of Sulston's most significant findings in the nine-year C. elegans project was that certain of the worm's cells die by programmed cell death, and he showed the first mutation of a gene, the nuc-1 gene, that participates in this cell death. His discovery has had numerous implications in the cure of human diseases—for example, as in stimulating the death of cancer cells. The sequencing of the nematode genome was completed in 1998; it was the first animal genome to be sequenced.

In 1987, Sulston was invited to a conference in the United States to give an estimate of the cost of a project that would sequence the human genome. The Human Genome Project was established by the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, in 1990, with a target completion date of 2005. However, the U.S.-British project became complicated by the quest for patents and profits, despite the will of Sulston and many colleagues that the human genome sequence be offered as public information, as the natural heritage of all people.

In his book The Common Thread: A Story of Science, Politics, Ethics, and the Human Genome, written with the assistance of science writer Georgina Ferry, Sulston tells the story of his work with the nematode project and then as director of human genome research at Wellcome Trust Sanger. He details the competition between the public project and American scientist Craig Venter and his privately funded company, Celera Genomics, as Venter raced to beat the international researchers and establish commercial control over the human genome sequence. Sulston and his fellow researchers placed their information on publicly available databases as it was ready, for companies worldwide that could use the information to develop treatments and cures for human illnesses, but they insisted that the sequence itself remain unpatentable. Venter pledged to finish the genome sequencing project by 2001 and sell his version to drug companies. He suggested that the government-funded researchers map the genome of the laboratory mouse instead. The research "war" was settled by the U.S. Congress when it allocated funding for the project. Under political pressure, both Venter and the international group put together what research they had completed and presented it to Congress, which then announced the completed "draft."

In a review for the Lancet, Virginia Barbour wrote, "In a gripping chapter, Sulston lays out the events that, in 1999-2000, almost broke the nerve of the HGP leaders, especially those in the USA, who were under pressure not to criticise what was by then a successful US company.… The Common Thread gives a startling insight into why this hype, rather than the science, dominated the sequencing of the human genome."

Sulston's book, said Robin McKie, in a review for the London Observer, "makes surprisingly angry reading, with most venom being reserved for [Venter]." In the review's headline, McKie referred to Sulston as "The Jedi Knight of DNA." Mary Chitty, in a review for Library Journal, praised the book as "a firsthand account of the excitement, hard work, vision, and dating" involved in Sulston's work with worm biology and then the human genome.

Ed Regis, in the New York Times Book Review, wrote, "This is a story in which nobody comes off looking good. Some of the world's top molecular biologists are shown plotting to deny Venter and Celera an early conquest of the genome. Sulston himself exhibits a meanspirited streak when he … [declines] to give Venter some data he had requested." Robert Macfarlane, of the Spectator, called the book "rather tedious" and "a rather pallid account" of the story. He concluded, "Sulston himself comes over as an immensely nice, modest and passionate man, and the bottom line is that he may have helped prevent the founding of the most powerful oligarchy ever seen. But he hasn't written a very good book."

Steven Rose, in a review for the Guardian, commented that the first third of the book, about Sulston's nematode research, makes for "heavy-going reading." But, he added, "it all comes to life when we get to the decision to move from worms to humans," making the book "unputdownable stuff, with the good guys and the bad guys clearly labeled.…an insider's story of one of the century's greatest technopolitical ventures." Lewis Dartnell, in a review for, called the book "an intriguing look into the changing face of science, for better or worse."

In an interview for a press release by Don Powell, of the Sanger Institute, Sulston said, "When results are shared freely amongst the biological community … scientists can move much more rapidly towards their goals.…Remember, this is only the start and we need dedicated people to translate the fundamental knowledge into real healthcare benefits."

In a speech given in 2001, quoted by Mark Henderson in an article for the London Times, Sulston summarized his feelings about the real success of the genome project when he said, "The genome is not a Pandora's box—it is a genuine treasure chest. But to open it fully, we need to have a rethink, to bring the public with us. The process must be democratic. It cannot be every man for himself. This is our common genome, and we must make common cause."



American Scientist, May-June, 2003, Dorothy Nelkin, "Genome politics: An Insider's Story," p. 272.

British Medical Journal, October 12, 2002, Lynn Eaton, "Human Genome Pioneers Are Awarded Nobel Prize," p. 791.

Chemist & Druggist, October 19, 2002, "2002 Nobel Prize Award," p. 34.

Chemistry and Industry, November 6, 2000, "Innovation Awarded," p. 698.

Choice, May, 2003, C. G. Wood, review of The Common Thread: A Story of Science, Politics, Ethics, and the Human Genome, p. 1576.

Economist (U.S.), September 22, 2001, "Making a Splash: The Face of Portraiture."

Guardian, February 9, 2002, Steven Rose, "How to Build a Human."

Journal of the American Medical Association, June 4, 2003, Thomas H. Murray, review of The Common Thread, p. 2870.

Lancet, March 30, 2002, "Unravelling the Story of the Human Genome," p. 1164.

Library Journal, November 15, 2002, Mary Chitty, review of The Common Thread, p. 96.

Manufacturing Chemist, November, 2002, "Nobel Prizes Shared by UK, US, and Japanese Scientists," p. 6.

New England Journal of Medicine, May 1, 2003, Isaac Rabino, review of The Common Thread, p. 1824.

New York Times Book Review, March 16, 2003, Ed Regis, "Other People's Molecules," p. 27.

Observer (London, England), February 3, 2002, Robin McKie, "The Jedi Knight of DNA: How a Motor-biking Radical Saved the Human Genome from Big Business," p. 15.

Scientific Computing & Instrumentation, November, 2002, "Nobel Prize Awarded to Genetic Researchers," p. 10.

Spectator, February 9, 2002, Robert Macfarlane, review of The Common Thread, p. 44.

Times (London, England), October 22, 1001, Mark Henderson, "Genome for the People," pp. 2, 10.


Human Genetics Commission Web site, (September 15, 2003), "Sir John Sulston."

National Academies Press Web site, (May 7, 2003).

Nobel Foundation Web site, (December 6, 2002), "The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2002: John Sulston."

Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute Web site, (October 7, 2002), Don Powell, "Sir John Sulston Awarded the 2002 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine."*