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Thursday, 24 October, 2002, 16:14 GMT 17:14 UK
Nobel scientist's bid for freedom
Sir John Sulston
Sir John champions public benefit over private gain
Nobel-Prize-winning scientist Sir John Sulston has spent some 30 years in a laboratory studying a millimetre-long worm in an attempt to help us understand our own bodies.

At the cutting edge of scientific research he also led the UK race to sequence the human genome, where he found himself championing public benefit over private gain.

Speaking to BBC World Service's Agenda programme, Sir John explained what motivates his work.

"A scientist's role is to discover," he explained. "We have a crucial role to communicate, but we do not have the unique right to decide. That is for the democratic public after being well informed."

Worm gazing

For most people, the idea of looking down a microscope at a wriggling worm for three decades may seem dull, but for Sir John the nematode was a gateway to a whole new world.

"It sounds boring but it is not because the world in there is unimaginably beautiful," he said.

Sir John spent 30 years studying the nematode
"It is very much like astronomy, just sitting and looking at your object for a long time."

Sir John's worm gazing paid off and, after an intense 18-month period of study, he and his colleagues were able to construct what he described as "the family tree of cells".

In 1990, along with his colleagues, Sir John published the gene map of the nematode.

Explaining the significance of their findings, he explained how they continually justified their research.

"I am always anxious to know whether I am doing something which is worthwhile," he said.

"Each of us spent about 15m getting the sequence of the nematode. The only purpose for spending that money is to make research work better."


Sharing the Nobel Prize for medicine for his work on the soil organism, Sir John was previously well known for his role in cracking our genetic code.

By 1998, the nematode team finally completed the first genetic sequence for an animal and Sir John found himself in the race to do the same for the human.

Modest about his achievements, he remains passionate about the scientist's role in pushing back boundaries.

"What is the point of human existence if we don't explore culturally?" he asked.

"We must keep this basic information free"

Sir John Sulston
Not content with helping to translate the "Book of Life", Sir John has described the idea of venture capitalists patenting our genes or making private profit out of their work as "despicable".

Campaigning for freedom of information, he explained how, "if you hang on to any piece of information, you create a monopoly because the human gene is unique".

"It's not really a fight against business, but it is a fight against inappropriate use of patenting and licensing," he said.

"We must keep this basic information free because only in this way can all the world's people and their scientists get hold of it."

A fervent believer in sharing information for human and scientific good, Sir John explained how he will continue to rally against the megalomaniacs of the scientific world.

"There are always people who are trying to appropriate the common good for their own ends and one has to continue to battle against that," he asserted.

Sir John Sulston speaks to Agenda
"With the worm I wasn't thinking morally"
See also:

06 Mar 00 | Science/Nature
30 May 00 | Human genome
30 Dec 00 | Science/Nature
19 Sep 01 | Arts
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