Sir John Sulston human genome pioneer dies

Sir John Sulston human genome pioneer dies
Sir John SulstonImage copyright Getty Images
Image caption Sir John had laboratories named after him at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute

The British genome pioneer Sir John Sulston has died aged 75.

He came to prominence as the British face of the international project to decode the human genome.

Sir John won a Nobel Prize in 2002 for his work on the development of cells within a humble worm, which paved the way for innovations in cancer research.

He was known as a passionate believer in pushing the boundaries of science and in making data on the human genome available to all.

He helped found the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute at Hinxton near Cambridge, and the laboratories there bear his name.

Prof Sir Mike Stratton, director of the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said the scientist had a burning and unrelenting commitment to making genome data open to all without restriction.

“We all feel the loss today of a great scientific visionary and leader who made historic, landmark contributions to knowledge of the living world, and established a mission and agenda that defines 21st century science,” he said.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Sir John was known as a brilliant scientist with a modest manner

Jeremy Farrar, director of the biomedical research charity, Wellcome, said Prof Sulston’s leadership was critical to the Human Genome Project, one of the most important scientific endeavours of the past century.

“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,” he said.

Gene race

The son of a vicar, Sir John was born in 1942. He studied for his degree in organic chemistry and PhD in nucleotide chemistry at the University of Cambridge in the 1960s.

After a stint studying in the US, he returned to Cambridge in 1969.

He was recognised with the Nobel Prize in 2002 for his contribution to the understanding of how genes control cell division and death in the nematode worm.

It was a groundbreaking discovery, resulting from three decades of studying the organism.

However, Prof Sulston is perhaps best known for his biggest academic pursuit – spearheading the international project to map the human genome.

The effort became a race between the public and the private sector, which led to a draft being published in 2001.

Both the US President, Bill Clinton, and the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, spoke at the press conferences held in Washington and London to announce that the draft sequence was complete.

In 2017, Sir John was made a Companion of Honour by the Queen in her birthday honours for his contribution to science and society.

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