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expert reaction to the news that Sir John Sulston, Nobel Prize winner and a key figure in the Human Genome Project, has died

The British pioneering genome scientist, Sir John Sulston, has died.


Prof Dame Nancy Rothwell, President & Vice-Chancellor, University of Manchester, said:

“John was not only a great scientist but also a great human being. When he was working at the University of Manchester over the last ten years, he donated a large part of his salary to support young researchers and he always chose the cheapest transport routes in order to use the money for his research.

“We will all miss him as a scientist but also for what he did beyond his great discoveries and because he was just such a lovely person.”


Sir John Chisholm, Executive Chair of Genomics England, said:

“In the great tradition of UK pioneering achievements in genomics, from the discovery of the double helix to today’s use of genomic medicine in the NHS, John Sulston stands out as the titan who made the discoveries which opened the way to turning brilliant science into the real practical patient benefit we can deliver today.”


Prof Veronica van Heyningen, Honorary Professor, University College London, said:

“John Sulston was of course a fantastic scientist, working out the complete cell-by-cell developmental schedule of C elegans development and also developing the concept of the first genome project for C elegans again, with Bob Waterston. Then when the Human Genome Project was maturing he fought hard and tirelessly persuaded key people (e.g. Jim Watson) to keep the data publicly accessible. His success in this has been critical for the accelerating progress of multiple genome sequencing in humans and all other species too. I got to know him better as a key member of the Human Genetics Commission from its inception. He is one of the most consistently principled individuals I have known, ready to fight for what he believed was the proper path. A strong supporter of individual rights, while also keeping sight of the good of society. So sad to hear that he has died. He will be hugely remembered and sadly missed.”


Prof Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society, said:

“John, whom I had the great pleasure to know personally, epitomised what it meant to be a great scientist. He made fundamental discoveries in how an organism develops from a single cell by mapping the complete lineage of the nearly 1,000 cells that make up the worm C. elegans. He then went on to build on this discovery by mapping the genes of C. elegans, which paved the way for first sequencing its genome and then the sequencing of the entire human genome. John’s leadership of the Sanger Institute from its inception through the years in which the human genome was sequenced led to it becoming one of the world’s leading centres for genome research.

“John was a highly ethical and public-spirited scientist. He was a strong advocate for keeping the human genome free and publicly available, rather than be in the hands of private corporations. This advocacy has been of enormous benefit as we now enter the field of genomics and personalised medicine. He also contributed to many other social and ethical issues related to science. Finally, he was a much loved human being who was an inspiration and a role model for all who came in contact with him. He will be sorely missed.”


Dr Richard Henderson, Group Leader, MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB), said:

“John Sulston was a wonderful hands-on scientist with a strong social conscience.  Apart from doing outstanding work on the postembryonic fate of the cells in the developing nematode worm, for which he shared the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, he coordinated two critically important genome sequencing projects. The first was the nematode genome, which was rapidly followed by his major role in the worldwide effort to determine the first human genome sequence in 2000.

“The story of this adventure is told in the excellent book “The Common Thread”, which he co-authored with Georgina Ferry. Through the strength of his character and a clear vision of the importance of research knowledge being widely available, John successfully ensured that the very first human genome sequence remained in the public domain, where it could be used for the public good.”


Dame Jean Thomas, President of the Royal Society of Biology, said:

“John Sulston was a remarkable individual of great integrity and personal warmth, and his passing will be a huge loss to the scientific community and beyond.

“In his leadership of the Human Genome Project he was uncompromising in making the data available to all for the benefit of humanity, and was committed to free access to scientific information.”


Prof Sir Pete Downes, University of Dundee and President of the Biochemical Society, said:

“Science has lost an intellectual and ethical giant. Sir John is remembered for his seminal contribution to sequencing the human genome, perhaps the single most important achievement in biology of the last 100 years. But more than that he fought and won the race to ensure the human genome would be in the public domain. The science community owes him two great debts and he will be sorely missed.”


Prof Richard Reece, University of Manchester and Biochemical Society Trustee, said:

“I am saddened to learn of the death of Sir John Sulston. His Nobel-prize winning work on determining cell fate in C. elegans was a triumph of careful observation to determine wider implications. In addition, his involvement with the human genome sequencing project helped lay down many of the fundamental underpinning principles for the openness and sharing of data. He was always willing to offer advice and was, perhaps, the one of the most unassuming of scientists you could ever meet. His passion for science and life shone through in everything he did.”


Dr Adrian Ibrahim, Head of Technology Transfer and Business Development at the Wellcome Sanger Institute & Chair of the BioIndustry Association’s (BIA) Genomics Advisory Committee, said:

“We all feel the loss today of a great scientific visionary and leader who made historic, milestone contributions to scientific knowledge and established a mission and agenda that defines 21st century science.  John was a truly inspirational scientist.  His leadership was pivotal in the establishment of the Wellcome Sanger Institute, the Human Genome Project, open access and genomics.  Few people can leave a legacy as great and life changing as his.  His insights and commitment have helped to shape today’s science and the genomics of tomorrow. He will be missed greatly, but never forgotten.”


Prof Mark Caulfield, Chief Scientist at Genomics England said:

“John Sulston was an outstanding scientist who created the Sanger Institute. John’s work and leadership in the Human Genome Project has led to major transformations in research and medicine. The 100,000 Genomes Project is one global endeavour that would not be here without his original contribution.”


Prof Tim Hubbard, of Genome Analysis at Genomics England (and who worked on the Human Genome Project), said:

“John was an inspirational scientist, mentor and friend. Highly principled, he argued for the reference human genome sequence to be freely available to all, to maximise its benefit for humanity. Today’s requirements for scientific data and results to be shared openly have built on that example. The incredible progress in genomics over the last 15 years are a testament to the benefits of this openness.”


Prof Dame Kay Davies, Dr Lee’s Professor of Anatomy, University of Oxford, said:

“John Sulston was an inspirational leader who led the human genome project and founded the Wellcome Sanger Institute.  He was an innovator who encouraged openness and exchange of data which transformed human genetics worldwide.  He was a generous person who was fun to debate with at the conference bar.  We shall miss him but his legacy will live on.”


Prof Sarah Harper, Professor of Gerontology, University of Oxford, said:

“John chaired the Royal Society’s People and the Planet Review. While neither an expert in climate change nor demography, he brought a meticulous scientific rigour to the review. He had a tremendous compassion for the plight of populations trapped by poverty and environmental degradation, and was determined that their situation be recognised.”


Prof Tim Spector, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology, Kings College London, said:

“Sad news that the humble unsung hero of the Human Genome Project who made modern genetics possible has died.”


Prof Robin Lovell-Badge FMedSci FRS, Group Leader, The Francis Crick Institute, said:

“John was a superb scientist, who made major contributions to the development of the round worm C. elegans as a model organism, one that has yielded many important insights into the biology of other organisms including humans, and to the unravelling of the genome sequences, again including that of humans. However, I also knew him as a wonderful, principled scientist who propagated the ideas of openness and the sharing of data. Without his influence we may well be struggling to work under a veil of secrecy, patent protection, etc, which would have been terrible for basic research and ultimately for humanity. His legacy is enormous.”


Prof 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.

“His dedication to free access to scientific information was the basis of the open access movement, and helped ensure that the reference human genome sequence was published openly for the benefit of all humanity. It’s just one of the ways that John’s approach set the standard for researchers everywhere.”


Prof Sir Mike Stratton, Director of the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said:

“John was founding Director of the Wellcome Sanger Institute (then Sanger Centre). He proposed and led from the front the UK contributions to the human and worm reference genomes and established the Sanger Centre and Wellcome Genome Campus in order to achieve these goals. 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. 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.”


Prof Wolk Reik FRS, Babraham Institute and Sanger Institute, said:

“Very sad to hear about the passing of John Sulston whose vision and dedication made the sequencing of the human genome a possibility and then a reality. And above that he was a collaboratively and community spirited scientist who deeply valued team effort and sharing of scientific knowledge by all to the benefit of humankind.”



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