Born in Cambridge, England, John Sulston showed early signs of both a passion and patience for discovery. As a child, he took apart and reassembled radios and televisions, and spent hours watching tiny animals under the microscope.
Sulston graduated from Cambridge University in 1963, but was not a stellar student. He was prepared to quit science, but his alternate plans fell through, and he fortuitously stumbled into a chemistry lab where he was able to pursue a Ph.D. on the chemical synthesis of DNA.
After completing his Ph.D. in 1966, Sulston conducted postdoctoral research at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies on the chemical origins of life. He returned to England in 1969 to join Sydney Brenner’s group at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. With Brenner, Sulston studied the biology and genetics of the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans.
This millimeter-long worm is particularly advantageous as a model organism as it is transparent and has only 959 cells, so every cell division and differentiation can be followed under the microscope. Sulston had his first big breakthrough in 1976, when he described the cell lineage for a part of the developing nervous system of C. elegans, mapping the neuronal circuitry and the migratory pathways of the entire nervous system. He also showed that every member of the species undergoes exactly the same program of cell division and differentiation.
Furthermore, he realized that certain cells in the lineage always died at a certain time by what appeared to be a programmed cell death. As part of this work, Sulston demonstrated the first mutation of a gene participating in programmed cell death, the nuc-1 gene.
Staring into the microscope in two four-hour shifts per day for 18 months, Sulston was able to track every cell that was born and died in the 14 hours that a C. elegans egg is growing. Through this work, sulston built a cell-fate map of C. elegans, enabling other scientists to compare and use mutants to find genetic defects. He completed this work in the early 1980s, and soon moved on to trying to sequence the entire genome of C. elegans.
Sequencing technology was still in its early stages when Sulston and his colleagues began, but by 1992 the Human Genome Project was well underway and techniques had advanced by leaps and bounds. Sulston was offered huge amounts of money to sequence and patent genes, but he refused on both moral and scientific grounds. He believes it is morally wrong to patent genes as they are not invented, and scientifically wrong as it blocks the advancement of knowledge. Sulston instead chose to work on a publicly funded sequencing project as director of the Sanger Center, making his data freely available as soon as he had it.
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