At the end of last week, we were informed of the sad passing of Nobel-prize winner, Sir John Sulston.

Sir John Sulston/Image Credit: Wellcome

Aged 76, he had a fruitful career, from leading the UK arm of the landmark Human Genome Project to being founder and director of the Wellcome Sanger Institute. To pay our respects, we wanted to take a look back at some of his career milestones…and there’s a lot of them!

Ever since his early days, Sulston was fascinated with figuring out how things worked, writes The Guardian. As a result, he completed his undergraduate degree in organic chemistry at Pembroke College, Cambridge, in 1963, followed by a phD at the university in the chemistry of nucleotides, the molecular chunks that carry information in DNA and RNA. He even managed to retain a skill for the practical as a professional scientist, developing the first method for freezing worms without killing them so that interesting specimens could be kept for future investigation. 

He first hit headlines back in 1983 when he published a paper reporting his analysis of the total cell lineage (about 1,000 cells in total) of the worm. This became the first organism for which every origin of every cell was exactly known. Talking of the achievement at the time, he said, “When we understand the worm, we will understand life.”

Sulston went from strength to strength, with a large part of his career being lent to his contribution to the Human Genome Project. His work on the nematode genome persuaded the Wellcome Trust that he was the person to lead the UK arm of the collaboration. 

I’m sure you can all remember, however, that the project came under some intense pressure in 1998, after scientist Craig Venter came forward with a competing private venture. He announced that he would complete the project three years ahead of the scheduled six years that Sulston and colleagues were aiming for. 

As a lifelong scientist, Sulston always championed the moral case for public ownership of the genome data. When the sequencing of a “rough draft” of the genome was revealed jointly by US president Bill Clinton and British prime minister Tony Blair in 2000, Sulston explained, “The only thing I have retained from my upbringing – I did not retain the religious element – is the idea that you do not do things for money.”

Professor Sir Mike Stratton, director of the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said, “We all feel the loss today of a great scientific visionary and leader who made historic, landmark contributions to the knowledge of the living world, and established a mission and agenda that defines 21st-century science.”

Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, added, “John was a brilliant scientist and a wonderful, kind and principled man. His leadership was critical to the establishment of the Wellcome Sanger Institute and the Human Genome Project, one of the most important scientific endeavors of the past century.”

Much more than this, he was a passionate advocate for scientific information being freely available, describing the idea of profiteering from such research as “totally immoral and disgusting.” He is widely credited for ensuring that the reference human genome sequence was published openly for the benefit of society rather than commercialised. 

“Without his influence, we may well be struggling to work under a veil of secrecy and patent protection, which would have been terrible for basic research and ultimately for humanity,” concluded Robin Lovell-Badge, a group leader at the Francis Crick Institute in London. “His legacy is enormous.”