The Rich West Might Get Cures for Cancer and the Poor of the Middle East Might Not? 'Exactly'; Sir John Sulston's Work on Mapping the Human Genome Has Made Him a Champion of Science over Business Interests, Which, He Believes, Are Contributing to Making the World an Unfairer Place

By Billen, Andrew | The Evening Standard (London, England), September 19, 2001 | Go to article overview

The Rich West Might Get Cures for Cancer and the Poor of the Middle East Might Not? 'Exactly'; Sir John Sulston's Work on Mapping the Human Genome Has Made Him a Champion of Science over Business Interests, Which, He Believes, Are Contributing to Making the World an Unfairer Place


Billen, Andrew, The Evening Standard (London, England)


Byline: ANDREW BILLEN

SIR John Sulston is the public face of the Human Genome Project, the international mission to identify and order every gene in the human body. But he is such a self-effacing man that it is probably appropriate that his is the first portrait ever to hang in the National Portrait Gallery that does not actually feature a face. Marc Quinn, the Young British Artist who 10 years ago famously made a bust of himself out of his frozen blood, has clever-cleverly represented Sulston through a sample of his own DNA.

On display from today, it is the first piece of conceptual art to brave the gallery, and is a truly collaborative effort, Quinn having provided the concept, and Sulston the semen.

On Monday night, at a low-wattage ceremony to reveal the dimly lit installation, the gallery's director, Charles Saumarez Smith, spoke with trepidation of the potential critical reaction. Sir John did not look too worried. He had already told me: "Some people will almost certainly think it is crap." Dressed beyond informality and towards scruffiness in a jumper, polo shirt, cords and sandals, he shouted "hear, hear," when Saumarez Smith said it was fitting that Quinn's work was not, in the conventional sense, an image of a single man, since many microbiologists around the globe had been involved in mapping the genome.

Sulston, 60 next March, actually has a rather good face for portraiture.

When we meet at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Centre in Cambridgeshire, a few days before the ceremony, he looks instantly familiar, as if I'd previously run into him, all hairy-kneed and rucksacked, on the top of some Lake District scar (which is possible, since he is a great hill walker). Today he is dressed in cords, sandals and, I strongly suspect, the same polo shirt he will still be wearing on Monday.

Marching us round the labs where until last year he was the director, he shows off the machines that pick fragments of DNA out of plates of biological culture, not one of them exhibiting the slightest aspiration to be mistaken for modern art. In another room, rows of DNA analysers order the genes, painting the code book of life on to computer screens in red, yellow, green and blue stripes, like automated tie-designers working exclusively for Jon Snow.

"Crick and Watson, (Maurice) Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin made the great discoveries of molecular biology. We are just working out what these guys laid down," he says when we reach his laughably small office and he forgets to drink the instant coffee he has just made, having been careful first to use the milk from his, rather than anybody else's carton.

For 30 years Sulston spent his days mapping the genetic structure of a dung-eating worm, looking down microscopes in four-hour shifts. You just know that for 30 years he has been scrupulous about not raiding fridges for other scientists' milk.

When the nematode worm's makeup was finally mapped in 1998, it took just a further two years for the same technology to identify 97 per cent of the human genome. His teams' findings are already being used to fight hereditary diseases such as muscular dystrophy and will lead to hugely better treatments for the big killers, cancer and heart disease.

A frontline cancer researcher explained the significance of Sulston's work to me earlier this year: "It is the finiteness of it," he said. "In the past you could say, 'I don't know how that works. It must be something else doing it.' Now, hey, there are only 32,000 genes - it's got to be one of them!"

It seems enough of an achievement, but Sulston may actually go down in history for something else, as the man who kept access to the genetic map-room free. Patenting the genome may seem as unlikely as copyrighting the periodic table, but that seems to have been the ambition of Sulston's commercial rival and former ally Craig Venter, the president of Celera Genomics in Maryland. …

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