Giants in genomics: John Sulston

Professor Sir John Sulston was the founding director of the Sanger Centre (now the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute) from 1992 until 2000 when the ‘working draft’ of the human genome sequence was completed.  

John Sulston was leader of the Sanger Centre during a historical period of genetic discovery, as it exploited and developed the DNA sequencing methods established by Fred Sanger.

From sharing, discovery is accelerated in the community.

John Sulston

John devoted his scientific life to biological research, and during his time as director he was instrumental in ensuring that the results of scientific research should be made freely available to all, in order to speed progress and increase transparency: “from sharing, discovery is accelerated in the community”. This culture of data sharing that he so passionately encouraged remains a central part of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute’s philosophy today.

John was born on the 27th March 1942 to a vicar and an English teacher. As a child he was fascinated with the mechanical workings of organisms and his scientific education formed a “natural progression” from this.

A self-confessed “nerd turned hippie” John completed his undergraduate degree in organic chemistry at Pembroke College, Cambridge, in 1963. He then went on to join the Department of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge where he carried out a PhD on nucleotide chemistry.

After three years at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California, John returned to Cambridge to join the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology. His research here focused primarily on mapping the cellular development of a nematode worm, Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans).

John Sulston's research at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology focused on the nematode worm, Caenorhabditis elegans.
Image credit: Wellcome Images

John was awarded a share in the 2002 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with fellow researchers, Sydney Benner and Robert Horvitz.

It was for this pioneering work that John was awarded a share in the 2002 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with fellow researchers, Sydney Benner and Robert Horvitz. This work naturally led to John thinking of mapping the worm’s genome, but to complete the project he needed more space and funding.

Around the same time, the Human Genome Project was started in the USA. John was keen for the UK to be involved, so he applied to the Wellcome Trust and Medical Research Council for a new institute to be built to finish sequencing the genome of the nematode C. elegans and begin work on the human genome. And so, the Sanger Centre was born in the summer of 1992.

It took over 12 years to map and sequence the nematode genome.

It took John and his team over 12 years to map and sequence the nematode genome, but, finally, the first DNA sequence of an animal was published for all the world to see in 1998. This work on the nematode worm formed a crucial model for sequencing the human genome and in 2000, a draft sequence of the human genome was published in Nature. It was the result of over 50 years of DNA and genetic science, and the collaboration of 20 scientific centres around the world.

John Sulston talks about sequencing the nematode worm C. elegans, his role in the Human Genome Project and the importance of sharing data.

Since leaving the Sanger Institute, John continued to strive to unite ethics with scientific practice and innovation. He took a leadership role at the Human Genetics Commission and in 2007 became chair of Manchester University’s Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation. In the 2001 New Year’s Honours, John received a knighthood for his services to genome research. He was then made a Companion of Honour in 2017 for his contribution to science and society.

John Sulston died on 6 March 2018 aged 75. He was described by Prof Sir Mike Stratton, director of the Wellcome Sanger Institute, as "a great scientific visionary and leader who made historic, landmark contributions to knowledge of the living world".  To many he was not only a brilliant scientist but also a kind and principled person. His leadership was critical to the success of the Human Genome Project, one of the most important scientific endeavours of the past century.

This page was last updated on 2018-03-15