Collecting genomics: the Richard Durbin papers

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Richard Durbin is a computational geneticist who played a key role in sequencing the C. elegans and human genomes. His papers have been catalogued (GRL/DUR) and are now available to view in the Wellcome Library.

Dr Richard Durbin. Wellcome Images no. C0056485

Dr Richard Durbin. Wellcome Images reference: C0056485

After graduating from the University of Cambridge with a degree in mathematics in 1982, Durbin embarked on a PhD whilst working at the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB). Here he gained an interest in the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans) and wrote his PhD thesis on the worm’s nervous system.

During his time at LMB Durbin also developed the software for one of the first x-ray crystallography area detectors and co-developed the MRC Biorad confocal microscope, which won the 1994 Royal Society Mullard Award for its innovative means of improving microscope clarity and definition. Durbin left the LBM in 1988 to take up a Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at Stanford University, California, but was enticed back in 1990 to work with John Sulston and Alan Coulson on sequencing the C. elegans genome.

C. elegans under a confocal microscope. Wellcome Images no. B0000057

C. elegans under a confocal microscope. Wellcome Images reference: B0000057

By the early 1990s computational analysis had become a crucial part of genomic research and the C. elegans sequencing team were keen to harness computer power as much as possible. Consequently, Durbin and his collaborator Jean Thierry-Mieg developed the database ACeDB (A C. Elegans DataBase). ACeDB not only held all the C. elegans sequence data, but displayed it clearly alongside the genetic map and bibliographies of relevant published papers. It set standards for the sequencing community and was later developed for use for other genomes, including human.

The archive contains various records concerning Durbin’s laboratory work. There is a comprehensive set of lab notebooks covering the mid 1980s and 1990-2002. There are papers regarding the confocal microscope and work and correspondence files concerning Durbin’s PhD research, ACeDB and other genome databases, and sequencing work. There are also files regarding many of Durbin’s published papers.

In 1992 Durbin was seconded to the newly founded Sanger Centre (now the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute) as Head of Informatics. He moved permanently to the Centre in 1996 and served as the Sanger Centre’s Deputy Director from 1997 to 2006. The archive contains various administrative Sanger Centre records covering strategic planning, staff training and campus building developments. There is also a set of photos of the Informatics Team cross-dressing for one of the regular Sanger Centre pantomimes, and by the looks of things very much enjoying it!

Today, Durbin is Acting Head of Computational Genomics at the Sanger Institute and leader of its Genome Informatics group. He co-leads the international 1000 Genomes Project, sequencing the genomes of a large number of people to provide a valuable resource on human genetic variation. He also leads the UK10K project, a genome-wide study exploring rare variants in different types of disease.

Along with the Durbin Archive, a small collection of lab notebooks from Matthew Jones (GRL/MCJ) have also recently been catalogued. They contain notes and results of his work assisting John Sulston with subcloning during the early years of the Sanger Centre.

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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