Sir John Sulston didn’t set out to help lead a race to sequence the human genome. An organic chemist turned nematode researcher, Sulston got sucked into being director of the Sanger Centre and a major player in the Human Genome Project in large part because of his dedication to sequencing C. elegans. Last month, Sulston was awarded the Nobel Prize with Sydney Brenner and Robert Horvitz for their work on programmed cell death and genetic mutations. Meanwhile, his book, The Common Thread: A Story of Science, Politics, Ethics, and the Human Genome, co-authored with Georgina Ferry, came out last October. In it, Sulston reveals his own perspective of the Human Genome Project, how genomics got where it is today, and the major issues — including patenting and availability of data — of the field. Sulston took some time from his continent-hopping schedule to catch up with GT’s Meredith Salisbury and talk a little more about the book and genomics in general.
You pointed out that HUGO never got the funding it really needed, and so was not the driving force it could’ve been for the Human Genome Project. Why was that?
SULSTON: I think most of HUGO was interested in genetics, rather than in the data collection side of the Human Genome Project, which I regarded as urgent at the time. But anyway I wouldn’t expect HUGO to be a funding agency.
You called the 26 June 2000 announcement of a draft sequence “dishonest” because people had to change their definition of “draft” in order to make the announcement true.
SULSTON: The June 2000 announcement was timed for political reasons, and presented two unfinished sequences. Only the public consortium proceeded with the finishing process. The chromosomes are now being signed off one by one, as they are brought to a level of completion that is the best reasonably achievable at the moment, and we expect that the last will be signed off during  — probably a greater cause for celebration than the draft! The genome will continue to be worked on forever, not just for a few months. That’s one reason why it has to be public, of course.
In your book, you talk a lot about competition within the HGP.
SULSTON: Internal competition is an effective and friendly drive. In the book we describe that in the collaboration between Cambridge [Sanger] and St. Louis [Washington University].
What will be the most critical challenges facing genomics in the next five to 10 years?
SULSTON: We each have our own perception of the challenges. Mine is the global one: we need, and urgently, to bring the world’s peoples onto a more even playing field. This goes far beyond genomics, of course, yet the application of genomics can be either part of the solution or part of the problem.
You seemed fairly rooted in the idea that Sanger, Washington University, and perhaps one other major center should be responsible for the HGP. It wound up with a lot more than three centers contributing.
SULSTON: In the book we describe a debate on this point, not a rootedness. It was about ease of collaboration as well as economy of scale. I’m glad that so many were involved; it’s good for the future. As sequencing spreads out to more organisms, and the cost of raw data generation continues to drop, I think there’s plenty of space for differently sized efforts.