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Sir John Sulston FRS

Nobel Prize winning scientist and Patron of Humanists UK, born 1942

Sir John Sulston’s father was an Anglican priest and he has described his upbringing and loss of faith:

He brought me up as a Christian, and it was a source of distress to him that I lost my faith, as they say, during my adolescence. That was a hard struggle, one of the hardest I’ve had. When I tried to talk to my fellow students about it at Cambridge I found them uncomprehending, not seeing it as very important in the scheme of things: but I had had to choose between my judgement and my father. It was a slight worry to me that our children were raised faithless – not prohibited, just not encouraged – in case the religious upbringing was essential to their moral development. Great relief that they’ve got on fine!

SulstonSir John showed a very early interest in how things work and science. After completing his PhD at Cambridge on the chemical synthesis of DNA he moved to the USA to study prebiotic chemistry (the origins of life on Earth). In 1969 he returned to Cambridge where he studied the biology and genetics of the nematode worm, Caenorhabditis elegans, and where he and his collaborators eventually sequenced its genome. In 1992, Sulston was appointed the first Director of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridgeshire. There he led a team of several hundred scientists who completed the sequencing of one third of the 3-billion-letter human genome, together with the genomes of many important pathogens such as the tuberculosis and leprosy bacilli. 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, and he received his knighthood for services to genome research in the 2001 New Year’s Honours.

As the leader of one of the four principal sequencing centres in the world, Sulston was a major influence on the Human Genome Project as a whole, particularly in establishing the principle that the information in the genome should be freely released so that all could benefit. He was chosen by The Independent for its “Good List 2006” of “50 campaigners, thinkers and givers” for mapping the human genome “for public good, not private profit”. He has said:

It seemed to me self-evident that on both moral and practical grounds the human genome itself (as opposed to inventions that may be made from a knowledge of it) is an inappropriate subject for commercial investment and ownership.

He has written more about free release and global inequality in The Common Thread: A Story of Science, Politics, Ethics and the Human Genome (co-written with Georgina Ferry, Bantam Press, 2002).

In 2000 he resigned as director of the Sanger Centre though he continued to work on the Human Genome Project publications and on outstanding problems with the worm genome. He is a member of the Human Genetics Commission and an advisory group on intellectual property set up by the Royal Society. In 2002 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine jointly with Sydney Brenner and Bob Horvitz, for the work they had done in understanding the development of the worm and particularly the role of programmed cell death.

In July 2009 he joined other eminent scientists and educators calling for vital changes to the proposed science curriculum for primary schools in England in a letter to the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families.

See also
A biography on the Wellcome website by Georgina Ferry
BBC4 profile
Royal Society audio interview in which John Sulston talks about his life in science and his vision for the future
Autobiographical piece

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