John E. Sulston, a scientist who won the Nobel Prize for work on one of the lowliest of nature’s creatures, which provided insights into the genetic processes by which human beings develop, and who also led the British effort to decode the human genome, died March 6 at 75.
The Wellcome Sanger Institute, which succeeded a genome research organization that Dr. Sulston founded, confirmed to the Associated Press that he had died but did not provide other details.
Dr. Sulston’s Nobel in physiology or medicine came in 2002 for painstaking observation of the development of every one of the thousand-odd cells of a nematode, C. elegans, a worm only a fraction of an inch in length. His research allowed him to observe the operation of genes, as cells are created and die off.
He shared his Nobel Prize with Sydney Brenner and H. Robert Horvitz for “their discoveries concerning genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death.”
Dr. Sulston’s research was a prodigious single-handed effort, requiring long and lonely hours peering through a special microscope. His work is said to have applications to human disease, including cancer.
It has become common, particularly in science and biotechnology, to describe the work of many modern biologists and biochemists as involving gene sequencing; the sequencing can be regarded as decoding the messages and instructions carried by DNA.
DNA is composed of strings of individual chemical units known as nucleotides, and their order, just as the order of letters in a word, or words in a sentence, represents the information necessary for the creation of life.
Devoted to laboratory work as he had been for many years, Dr. Sulston remain off the field of combat over the applications of science and of how major research enterprises should be conducted.
He strongly favored making scientific findings available to the public, for the common good, rather than see them as the property of profit-making corporations.
“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,” Mike Stratton, the Wellcome Sanger Institute’s director, said, according to the AP.
John Edward Sulston was born March 27, 1942, in Cambridge, England. His father was an Anglican priest. As a child, he possessed skills and inclinations that would serve well in many occupations, as well as in experimental or observational science.
As far back as I remember, and earlier,” he said in an autobiographical sketch for the Nobel Prize website, “I was an artisan, a maker and doer.”