Human Genome Project Pioneer John Sulston Dies At Age 75

Nobel Prize winner Sir John Sulston, a man credited with pioneering human genome research, has passed away at the age of 75. Today the scientific community is looking back on the life and work of a man who led the Human Genome Project and made research in the area of genomes possible.

john sulston human genome project
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Multiple U.K. news outlets are reporting on his death and legacy. Admirers remember the humble man whose work often went unacknowledged despite the groundbreaking nature of it. In addition to his scientific research, he also ensured that his discoveries and the discoveries of other geneticists were circulated.

Kings College London Professor Tim Spector described Sir John Sulston to The Independent as the “humble unsung hero of the Human Genome Project.” He was passionate about making data on genomes available to anyone who wanted to review it, and as a result, he’s credited with the way information in this area of study is freely shared among researchers. He was also disgusted by the way some scientists were profiteering off of their research and hiding it from others.

Sulston headed up the U.K.’s effort in mapping the human genome, a major scientific milestone. In 2002, he and two of his colleagues received the Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology for their research into genetic control of cell death and cell division. Their work involved mapping the genome of a worm, and it has led to breakthroughs in the area of cancer research, according to the BBC. In analyzing the worm’s cells, Sulston was able to determine every cell’s origin and development. Today, the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute is one of the world’s top institutions for research into genomes.

John Sulston was interested in learning how things work from a very early age, he explained to The Guardian in an interview in 2002. He studied at Pembroke College, Cambridge and was the first to figure out a way to keep worms alive while freezing them in order to preserve specimens that were especially interesting. After James Watson came up with the idea for the Human Genome Project, Sulston was selected to head up the U.K.’s portion of the project due to his research on the nematode genome. Last year, Queen Elizabeth II named him a Companion of Honor for his scientific and societal contributions.

The BBC and The Guardian characterize Professor Craig Venter as a nemesis of sorts for John Sulston. After Sulston and the Human Genome Project team started their research, Venter started up his own private effort to map the human genome. He said he would finish it three years before the scientists with the Human Genome Project were expecting to finish their sequencing work.

Venter also argued that Sulston’s way of sequencing the genome was a hinderance to the technology’s development. The two teams competed with each other to uncover all of the genes in the human genome. Venter wasn’t able to patent any of the genes discovered by the public Human Genome Project, as Sulston maintained his belief that scientific discoveries should be owned by everyone.

He also felt that scientific research should be carried out only at universities and not by private companies keeping all their discoveries to themselves. He believed that a capitalistic attitude was holding back research into serious diseases that claim lives in poverty-stricken Africa because private companies don’t want to work on anything that won’t turn a profit.