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John Sulston obituary: Pioneer genome researcher dies

9 March 2018
Appeared in BioNews 941

Professor Sir John Sulston, a pioneer of human genome research, has died at the age of 75. 

Professor Sulston was instrumental in founding the field of human genomics. In 2002, Professor Sulston won the Nobel Prize for medicine for his work on how genes regulate cell division and death in the nematode worm, Caenorhabditis elegans, a laboratory model organism (see BioNews 179).

In 2017, Professor Sulston was recognised in the Queen's birthday honours (see BioNews 906). 

The Sanger Institute confirmed his death in a statement.

Professor Sulston graduated from the University of Cambridge in 1963, moving on to postdoctoral research in the USA, before returning to work in the molecular biology lab at Cambridge under Sydney Brenner. 

He also helped to found and was the first director of the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge, leading the centre from 1992 to 2000. In his research, he led the UK's contribution to the first 'working draft' of the human genome. 

The majority of Professor Sulston's research, however, was focused on the genetics of the nematode worm C. elegans. In 1990, he produced the first gene map for C. elegans. Providing the raw data on the worm's genome 'got rid of a huge bottleneck in biology', he said in an interview in 2011 published on the Wellcome Trust website. 'The worm was a critical milestone,' Professor Sulston said. 'Genetics was coming of age.'

His work in establishing the field of genomics has had a lasting impact in medicine and biology research. 

'He had a burning and unrelenting commitment to making genome data open to all without restriction and his leadership in this regard is in large part responsible for the free access now enjoyed,' said Professor Sir Mike Stratton, director of the Wellcome Sanger Institute. 

'We all feel the loss today of a great scientific visionary and leader who made historic, landmark contributions to knowledge of the living world, and established a mission and agenda that defines 21st century science.'

Jeremy Farrar, Director of Wellcome, said: 'John was a brilliant scientist and a wonderful, kind and principled man. His leadership was critical to the establishment of the Wellcome Sanger Institute and the Human Genome Project, one of the most important scientific endeavours of the past century.'

John Sulston (1942-2018) – Founding Director of the Wellcome Sanger Institute
Wellcome Sanger Institute |  9 March 2018
Sir John Sulston and the Human Genome Project
Wellcome Trust |  9 March 2018
Sir John Sulston, scientist who led human genome breakthrough, dies
Sky News |  9 March 2018
15 April 2019 - by Dr Kimberley Bryon-Dodd 
Professor Sydney Brenner, a pioneering molecular biologist and Nobel prize winner, has died at the age of 92...
25 February 2019 - by Martha Henriques 
Professor Sue Povey, a leading scientist on the Human Genome Project, has died at the age of 76...
24 September 2018 - by Martha Henriques 
Clinical and molecular geneticist at UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, Professor Maria Bitner-Glindzicz, has died at the age of 55 after a traffic incident while cycling in central London...
26 June 2017 - by Sandy Starr 
Foremost among them is Professor Sir John Sulston, who played a central role in the Human Genome Project and founded the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute...
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