John Sulston: Biologist, Geneticist and Guardian of our Heritage


Sir John Sulston died on 6 March 2018, an event reported world-wide by the press, radio and television. Having studied in Cambridge and then worked at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, he joined the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge to investigate how genes control development and behaviour, using as a ‘model organism’ the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans. This tiny creature, 1 mm long, was appealing because it is transparent and most adult worms are made up of precisely 959 cells. Simple it may be but this worm has all the bits required for to live, feed and reproduce (i.e. a gut, a nervous system, gonads, intestine, etc.). For his incredibly painstaking efforts in mapping from fertilized egg to mature animal how one cell becomes two, two becomes four and so on to complete the first ‘cell-lineage tree’ of a multicellular organism, Sulston shared the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Bob Horvitz and Sydney Brenner.

Sir John Sulston

It became clear to Sulston that the picture of how genes control development could not be complete without the corresponding sequence of DNA, the genetic material. The worm genome is made up of 100 million base-pairs and in 1983 Sulston set out to sequence the whole thing, in collaboration with Robert Waterston, then at the University of Washington in St. Louis. This was a huge task with the technology available but their success indicated that the much greater prize of sequencing of the human genome — ten times as much DNA as in the worm — might be attainable.

In 1992 Sulston became head of a new sequencing facility, the Sanger Centre (now the Sanger Institute), in Hinxton, Cambridgeshire that was the British component of the Human Genome Project, one of the largest international scientific operations ever undertaken. Astonishingly, the complete human genome sequence, finished to a standard of 99.99% accuracy, was published in Nature in October 2004.

As the Human Genome Project gained momentum it found itself in competition with a private venture aimed at securing the sequence of human DNA for commercial profit — i.e., the research community would be charged for access to the data. Sulston was adamant that our genome belonged to us all and with Francis Collins — then head of the US National Human Genome Research Institute — he played a key role in establishing the principle of open access to such data, preventing the patenting of genes and ensuring that the human genome was placed in the public domain.

One clear statement of this intent was that, on entering the Sanger Centre, you were met by a continuously scrolling read-out of human DNA sequence as it emerged from the sequencers.

In collaboration with Georgina Ferry, Sulston wrote The Common Thread, a compelling account of an extraordinary project that has, arguably, had a greater impact than any other scientific endeavour.

For me and my family John’s death was a heavy blow. My wife, Jane, had worked closely with him since inception of the Sanger Centre and not only had his scientific influence been immense but he had also become a staunch friend and source of wisdom. At the invitation of John’s wife Daphne, a group of friends and relatives gathered at their house after the funeral. As darkness fell we went into the garden and once again it rang to the sound of chatter and laughter from young and old as we enjoyed one of John’s favourite party pastimes — making hot-air lanterns and launching them to drift, flickering to oblivion, across the Cambridgeshire countryside. John would have loved it and it was a perfect way to remember him.

Then …

When John Sulston set out to ‘map the worm’ the tools he used could not have been more basic: a microscope — with pencil and paper to sketch what he saw as the animal developed. His hundreds of drawings tracked the choreography of the worm to its final 959 cells and showed that, along the way, 131 cells die in a precisely orchestrated programme of cell death. The photomontage and sketch below are from his 1977 paper with Bob Horvitz and give some idea of the effort involved.

Photomontage of a microscope image (top) and (lower) sketch of the worm Caenorhabditis elegans showing cell nuclei. From Sulston and Horvitz, 1977.

 … and forty years on

It so happened that within a few days of John’s death Achim Trubiroha and colleagues at the Université Libre de Bruxelles published a remarkable piece of work that is really a descendant of his pioneering studies. They mapped the development of cells from egg fertilization to maturity in a much bigger animal than John’s worms — the zebrafish. They focused on one group of cells in the early embryo (the endoderm) that develop into various organs including the thyroid. Specificially they tracked the formation of the thyroid gland that sits at the front of the neck wrapped around part of the larynx and the windpipe (trachea). The thyroid can be affected by several diseases, e.g., hyperthyroidism, and in about 5% of people the thyroid enlarges to form a goitre — usually caused by iodine deficiency. It’s essential to determine the genes and signalling pathways that control thyroid development if we are to control these conditions.

For this mapping Trubiroha’s group used the CRISPR method of gene editing to mutate or knock out specific targets and to tag cells with fluorescent labels — that we described in Re-writing the Manual of Life.

A flavor of their results is given by the two sets of fluorescent images below. These show in real time the formation of the thyroid after egg fertilization and the effect of a drug that causes thyroid enlargement.

Live imaging of transgenic zebrafish to follow thyroid development in real-time (left). Arrows mark chord-like cell clusters that form hormone-secreting follicles (arrowheads) during normal development. The right hand three images show normal development (-) and goiter formation (+) induced by a drug. From Trubiroha et al. 2018.

John would have been thrilled by this wonderful work and, with a chuckle, I suspect he’d have said something like “Gosh! If we’d had gene editing back in the 70s we’d have mapped the worm in a couple of weeks!”


International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium Nature 431, 931–945; 2004.

John Sulston and Georgina Ferry The Common Thread: A Story of Science, Politics, Ethics and the Human Genome (Bantam Press, 2002).

Sulston, J.E. and Horvitz, H.R. (1977). Post-embryonic Cell Lineages of the Nematode, Caenorhabitis elegans. Development Biology 56, 110-156.

Trubiroha, A. et al. (2018). A Rapid CRISPR/Cas-based Mutagenesis Assay in Zebrafish for Identification of Genes Involved in Thyroid Morphogenesis and Function. Scientific Reports 8, Article number: 5647.


Bonkers Really … but …


This is just in case you spotted the headline in January 2018: ‘Scientists Counted All The Protein Molecules in a Cell And The Answer Really Is 42. This is so perfect.’ 

Them scientists eh! The things they get up to!! The scallywags in this case were Brandon Ho & chums from the University of Toronto and Signe Dean, the journalist who came up with the headline, was referring, of course, to Douglas Adams’s “Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life …” in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — though it may be noted that Ho’s paper includes neither the number 42 nor mention of Douglas Adams.

The cult that has evolved around this number is both amusing and bizarre, not least because Adams himself explained that he dreamed 42 up out of the blue. In a different context a while ago (talking about how the way you get to work might affect your life expectancy) I recounted happy evenings spent carousing in The Baron (well, having a quiet jar or two) with Douglas Adams and friends from which it was clear that he was not into abstruse mathematics, astrology or the occult. He just had a vivid imagination.

Anything for a catchy headline but

Aside from the whimsy, is there anything interesting in this paper? Well, yes. Ho & Co studied a type of yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) that is mighty important because it’s been a foundation for brewing and baking since ancient times. So no merry sessions in The Baron of Beef without it! Its cells are about the same size as red blood cells (5–10 microns in diameter) but you can actually see them sometimes as films on the skin of fruit. It’s played a huge role in biology as a ‘model organism’ for studying how we work because the proteins it makes that are essential for life are pretty well identical to those in human cells — so much so that you can swap those that control cell growth and division between the two. Yeast proteins work just fine in human cells and vice versa.


Yeast on the skin of a grape. Photo: Barbara W. Beacham


The question Ho & Co asked was ‘how many protein molecules are there in one cell?’ In the age when you can sequence the DNA of practically anything at the drop of a hat, you might think we’d know the answer already but in fact it’s not been at all clear. Accordingly, what these authors did was to pull together all the relevant studies that have been done to come up with an absolute figure. The answer that emerged was that the number of protein molecules per yeast cell is 4.2 x 107 — which, of course, can also be written as 42 million. Eureka! We have our headline!! Albeit, as the authors noted, with a two-fold error range.

Does anyone care?

Now you’re just being awkward. You should be grateful to be made to picture for a moment tens of millions of proteins jiggling around in little sacs so small you could get tens of thousands of these cells on the head of a pin. And somehow, in that heaving molecular city, each protein manages to carry out its own task so that the cell works. It is quite staggering.

Mention of tasks leads to the other question Ho et al looked at: how many copies are there of the different types of protein? We know from its DNA sequence that this yeast has about 6,000 genes (Saccharomyces Genome Database). So that’s at least 6,000 different proteins. Not surprisingly, it turns out that about two thirds of them are in the middle in terms of abundance — i.e. there’s between 1,000 and 10,000 molecules of each sort per cell. The rest are either low abundance (up to about 800 molecules per cell) or at the high end — 140,000 to 750,000, i.e. somewhere in the region of half a million copies of each type of protein.

Does this distribution make sense in terms of what these proteins do?

You know the answer because if it didn’t the Toronto team wouldn’t have got their work published but, indeed, proteins present in large numbers are, for example, part of the machinery that makes new proteins (so they’re slaving away all the time) whereas, those present in small numbers do things like repair and replicate DNA and drive cells to divide — important jobs but ones that are only intermittently needed.

These results aren’t going to turn science on its head but it is awe-inspiring when a piece of work really brings us face-to-face with stunning complexity of biology. And if it takes a bonkers headline to catch our eye, so be it!


Ho, B. et al. (2018). Unification of Protein Abundance Datasets Yields a Quantitative Saccharomyces cerevisiae Proteome. Cell Systems. Published online: January 23, 2018.