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Sir John Sulston: A Profile

WEDNESDAY 11th December 2002
John Sulston has a knighthood, a Nobel Prize and the credit for uncovering our genetic instructions for life. His mapping of the human genome has put him at the forefront of scientific endeavour.

But Sulston remains happiest away from the awards platform and behind his microscope. A Guardian-reading, muesli-chomping, self-confessed "nerd turned hippie", he is very much what fellow Nobel Laureate Paul Nurse calls "a scientist's scientist".

Worm work

The son of a vicar and a teacher, Sulston was, at an early age, imbued with a strong moral code and curiosity for how things work. When he arrived in the research labs of Cambridge, he discovered his vocation in the unlikely form of the nematode worm.

Tracking the worm's cellular development took Sulston eight hours a day. Eighteen months later, he had made some radical discoveries about cell lineage in humans and earned himself a Nobel Prize.

Scientific pilgrimage

Sulston was considered a safe pair of scientific hands to receive a huge cheque and the keys to the Sanger Centre in Cambridge, where he set about directing the British end of the international Human Genome Project.

He was the obvious choice for the task of deconstructing the 3,000 million gene bases in each human being, but even Sulston was unprepared for how this scientific pilgrimage became an exercise, too, in diplomatic relations.

Showdown

The anti-consumerist Sulston withstood attempts by US scientist Craig Venter to speed up the process and patent the best, most lucrative genes, a business decision with the potential for profound political and ethical ramifications.

Dragged into a PR war with corporate America, Sulston managed to summon extra energy and funding, and the race for the genome was on. He also defiantly kept his data in the public domain, making his opponents' lab secrets less lucrative.

Disillusioned?

A draw was finally declared a couple of years ago, but both Sulston and Venter still bristle on the subject of who should claim credit for the success of the project. And Sulston appears disillusioned by the society he witnessed away from his lab, one convinced by image rather than reality.

Faced with the prospect of a world unbalanced by the monopoly of scientific knowledge and economic power, the Cambridge professor has himself resisted the financial trappings of his phenomenal success. John Sulston asks, "What else do you want apart from conversation?"