John Sulston, 1942-2018

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John Sulston, who died on 6 March, was a pioneering biologist and a passionate life-long advocate for socialism.

Sulston spent his formative years working at the famous Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, sometimes called the “Nobel Prize factory” because of the number of its scientists who achieved that award. Indeed Sulston himself was awarded the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his role in the discovery of “cell death”, the regulated process that helps to shape an embryo as it develops, and to prevent uncontrolled cell growth in the adult organism.

This discovery was made while Sulston was studying the simple nematode worm, but later investigations showed that basically the same set of genes regulate this process in people, demonstrating its importance for human biology. What’s more, since one of the ways that human cancer cells are able to divide and spread around the body is by blocking the cell death process, this discovery was of important medical significance and has stimulated the development of new anti-cancer drugs.

Sulston’s other major contribution to science was leading the British scientists involved in the Human Genome Project, the international effort to sequence all the 3 billion “letters” of DNA that is present in the cells of each human being. This project became controversial partly because of its cost — $3 billion — but also because the publicly funded project soon became embroiled in a “race” with a rival, privately funded project led by the US geneticist Craig Venter.

Not a person to seek the limelight, Sulston’s belief in the importance of publicly funded and publicly accessible science led him to vigorously challenge, on both ethical and scientific grounds, a model in which access to the genome data would only be available to those willing to pay for the information. “The only thing I have retained from my upbringing — I did not retain the religious element — is the idea that you do not do things for money,” said Sulston at this time.

As a consequence, he lobbied for more money to allow the public initiative to make more rapid progress. In the end, the competition between the public and private initiatives led to the genome being sequenced more rapidly than might otherwise have been the case. Importantly though, when the “race” was declared a draw in 2003, the genome sequence was publicly accessible to all.

Robin Lovell-Badge, a biologist at the Francis Crick Institute in London, believes that Sulston’s input was so critical in this regard that “without his influence we may well be struggling to work under a veil of secrecy and patent protection, which would have been terrible for basic research and ultimately for humanity”.

Sulston’s life and work also reveals a tension that has developed in the scientific left, which reflects conflicting ideas about the importance of biology versus society. Unlike Sulston, well-known socialist biologists such as Steven Rose and Richard Lewontin initially opposed the human genome project, arguing that the money spent on it could be more usefully spent on a multitude of smaller-scale projects.

This stance was mistaken, as it ignored the value that the human genome sequence, and those of a multitude of other species, has since come to assume for biomedical science. The advances in sequencing technology stimulated by the genome project eventually led to a dramatic increase in efficiency, such that an individual human genome can now be sequenced for less than $1,000. This has been of great importance in a range of clinical initiatives, such as identifying the molecular basis of a person’s cancer, or diagnosing, and treating, genetic disorders in new-born babies.

Rose and Lewontin’s critical attitude was partially influenced by overblown claims that the genome sequence represented the blueprint for building a human being. Sulston himself sometimes also could be guilty of such a position, for instance when he said in 2003 that “We’ve now got to the point in human history where for the first time we are going to hold in our hands the set of instructions to make a human being.”

In fact, the more we learn about the human genome sequence — and how it differs between different individuals — the more it has become clear just how complex is the genome, and the role it plays in common human disorders, and different human characteristics.

But this challenge to simple reductionism has been particularly helped by the great resource that the human genome sequence — and follow-up projects that mapped its functional activity — has provided for biology, and which Sulston played such a valuable role in making accessible to all.