John Sulston, Human Genome Project Leader, Dies

The biologist earned a Nobel Prize in 2002 for his work on C. elegans.

Kerry Grens
Kerry Grens
Mar 11, 2018

WIKIMEDIA, JANE GITSCHIERJohn Sulston, who championed the open access of Human Genome Project data as the leader of its UK-based team, died last week (March 6) at age 75. Before contributing to the first human genome sequence, Sulston mapped the developmental trajectory of every cell in C. elegans, earning the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2002.

“His dedication to free access to scientific information was the basis of the open access movement, and helped ensure that the reference human genome sequence was published openly for the benefit of all humanity,” Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, says in a statement. “It’s just one of the ways that John’s approach set the standard for researchers everywhere.”

Sulston was born in 1942 in England and earned his PhD in chemistry, studying oligonucleotides, from the University of Cambridge. He came to work on C. elegans development with Sydney Brenner at the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology in the U.K. According to The Guardian, Sulston was a skilled technician, developing a method to freeze worms and reanimate them so he could pause his work overnight.

Years of observations through the microscope led to the cell fate map of all of the worm’s cells. In building the sequence of developmental events in C. elegans, Brenner, Sulston, and their MIT colleague Robert Horvitz, who all shared the Nobel Prize, determined when certain cells die via programmed cell death, or apoptosis.

In the early 1980s, Sulston turned to sequencing the animal’s genome and continued this work as the head of the newly established Sanger Centre (now Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute), beginning in the early 1990s. Later, as part of the Human Genome Project, Sulston’s group at Sanger contributed about 1/3 of the genome sequence, while the rest came from the US National Institutes of Health and Department of Energy.

From the get-go, Sulston advocated for the public availability of genomic data, whether it be nematode or human, and continued this work after leaving Sanger and co-founding the Institute for Science, Ethics, and Innovation at the University of Manchester.

Sulston is survived by his wife, children, and grandchildren.

Correction (March 12): We updated the article to include the contribution of the US Department of Energy to the Human Genome Project. The Scientist regrets the oversight.