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John Sulston’s Archive Now Available in the Library

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03/10/2014

By | From the Collections

The complete John Sulston archive (PP/SUL) has been catalogued and is available to researchers in the Library. The final two sections have been catalogued, with Section B covering Sulston’s role as Director of the Sanger Centre (now the Sanger Institute) and his involvement in the international Human Genome Project, and Section C focusing on his work after stepping down as Director in 2000.

As outlined in a previous blog post, Sulston came to genomics and genome sequencing through his work on the nematode worm C. elegans. Partly to gain the resources needed to finish sequencing the worm’s genome, Sulston sought funding from the Wellcome Trust and Medical Research Council (MRC) to establish a UK-based centre that would sequence part of the human genome as well as the genomes of other organisms. The result was the Sanger Centre named after the double Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Fred Sanger, who officially opened the Centre in October 1993.

John Sulston at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. Wellcome Image no.B0007666

John Sulston at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. Wellcome Image no.B0007666

Sulston was the Centre’s first Director, playing an important role in developing its structure and direction as well as steering it through its teething problems. Many of the archival records relating to the Sanger Centre are closed due to on-going operational issues, but researchers can explore the records regarding laboratory work undertaken by the Centre in the 1990s, which included genomic research into many organisms such as yeast, zebrafish and pathogens.

As Director, Sulston oversaw the expansion of the Centre’s human genome work from a pilot study in the first few years to a multinational seven year project to sequence the entire human genome in collaboration with Bob Waterston’s team at Washington University and other international laboratories.

A monthly sequencing report for Team 12 at the Sanger Centre. Wellcome Library reference: PP/SUL/B/2/2/22. Image credit: Wellcome Images

A monthly sequencing report for Team 12 at the Sanger Centre. Wellcome Library reference: PP/SUL/B/2/2/22.

In 1996 the first International Strategy Meeting on Human Genome Sequencing was held in Bermuda, attended by those with serious intentions and funding to undertake genome sequencing. It resulted in the formation of the Bermuda Principles which stated that all sequence data would be immediately released into the public domain as it was produced and be made freely available. The archive contains both official reports and Sulston’s own notes from these meetings, including the jottings he made during discussions around the Bermuda Principles.

One of the attendees at the first Bermuda meeting was Craig Venter, who in 1998 announced the formation of a privately funded commercial sequencing company (Celera Genomics) that would sequence the entire human genome in three years. The data would be publically released, but could not be freely redistributed or used scientifically. Sulston challenged this position arguing that it stifled scientific research and was ultimately an attempt by private interests to gain control over fundamental biological information.

The Sulston archive documents the work of the publically-funded Human Genome Project and includes high-level strategy and co-ordination discussions alongside papers covering the sequencing of different chromosomes. The archive contains correspondence between collaborators, sequencing data and chromosome sequencing meeting papers, which altogether illustrates the crucial role international collaboration played in the Human Genome Project. The archive also covers the public relations work surrounding the announcement of the draft sequence in 2000 and its publication in 2001. A “gold standard” version was later announced by the Human Genome Project in April 2003.

Promotional poster produced by the Wellcome Trust. Wellcome Library reference: PP/SUL/B/5/7. Image credit: Wellcome Images

Promotional poster produced by the Wellcome Trust. Wellcome Library reference: PP/SUL/B/5/7.

Sulston stepped down as Director of the Sanger Centre in October 2000 but has remained active in the scientific community. He co-wrote The Common Thread (2001) with the science writer Georgina Ferry, which set out his personal account of the Human Genome Project.

More recently Sulston has sat on various committees and working groups and has been in high demand as a guest speaker on the subject of bioethics and the implications of the Human Genome Project. Section C of the archive charts Sulston’s post-Sanger professional life and includes records on his work with the Human Genetics Commission (a government advisory body), his 2001 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures and the book tours undertaken to promote The Common Thread.

Author: Victoria Sloyan is Assistant Project Archivist at the Wellcome Library.

Victoria Sloyan

Victoria Sloyan is an archivist at the Wellcome Library.

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