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banner Tuesday, 30 May, 2000, 16:45 GMT 17:45 UK
The public servant: John Sulston
John Sulston
John Sulston: Three decades of worm study
A bearded, sandal-wearing, self-professed "child of the Sixties", the director of the Human Genome Project in the UK spent 30 years of his life studying a one millimetre-long worm.

His work at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology on the cell lineage and genome of the tiny soil organism Caenorhabditis elegans was a trial run for the big one: the sequencing of the human genome.

The human genome will be the foundation of biology for decades, centuries or millennia to come.

Dr John Sulston, director of the Sanger Centre
Dr Sulston was born in 1942, the son of a vicar and a schoolteacher. Though he is no longer religious, he says his upbringing instilled in him the ideal of social service and the idea that "you do not do things for money".

Unlike Craig Venter, who travels in Lear Jets and Jaguar cars, Dr Sulston drives to work in the family second-hand car.

After an undergraduate degree in organic chemistry and a PhD at Cambridge University, Dr Sulston headed for the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California.

Sanger Centre boss

There, as a postdoc research fellow, he grew runner beans, argued with pro-Vietnam colleagues, and had dinner with Nobel prizewinners. He also studied prebiotic chemistry, and when he returned to Cambridge in 1969, he was snapped up by the MRC lab where the structure DNA was first identified.

Dr Sulston and his colleagues at the University of Washington published the gene map of the nematode in 1990, then started to sequence it, and when the Wellcome Trust entered the race to do the same for the human in 1992, Dr Sulston was appointed director of the new Sanger Centre in Cambridgeshire.

The nematode team finally completed the genome sequence (the first for an animal) in 1998.

A man who is modest about his own achievements, Dr Sulston is a passionate believer in pushing the boundaries of science: "What is the purpose of being human and alive without doing new things?"

He also fervently wants to ensure that our genetic blueprint is publicly and freely available. Genome sequencing for commercial gain is, he has said, "totally immoral and disgusting".

By Emma Young

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10 Dec 98 | Sci/Tech
Small worm makes history
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