I spent two of my three months on sabbatical in Cambridge gathering my courage to invite Sir John Sulston for an interview. How do you approach a man who has spearheaded and labored with his own hands on three major genetics projects, won a Nobel Prize, been knighted, and even had a building named after him? Perhaps it was the salutation that gave me pause, before settling finally on dear sir john in an e-mail.
Capped with a head of vigorous white hair and a face framed with a matching beard, Sir John has a rock star recognizability. Thus he captured my attention one Saturday afternoon as my 12-year-old daughter and I bicycled past the Fitzwilliam Museum, and he pedaled by in the opposite direction. There is the man I''m hoping to interview! I said as I pointed out the man in a red shirt.
I told her he was Sir John Sulston. Is he a prince? No, just a knight.
That he had won a Nobel Prize. Is he rich? I don''t think so.
And that he had won it for his work on worms. Does he know that worms are segmented? Ah, a tricky question! Not his worms, tiny creatures called C. elegans. I started to wonder if maybe she should do the interview.
Sir John was catapulted into the public light as the spokesperson for the human genome in the UK. His experiences in defending the public genome efforts against the assault of privatization and patenting, chronicled in his book The Common Thread: A Story of Science, Politics, Ethics and the Human Genome (Black Swan, 2003) were transformational. Now officially retired from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute (WTSI), he is absorbed in policy-making for the UK government, the World Health Organization, and a variety of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). An activist and humanitarian who still rides his bicycle to work, who is content to share a small office, and who ponders whether our species will survive the coming century, Sir John is an inspirational man, one who leads by example.
Jane Gitschier: I''d like to start with the process of looking at worms and tracing their lineages. When did this work begin?
John Sulston: It was mid-''70s, I think. I''m a bit vague because I did all sorts of different things after joining Sydney''s Brenner group in 1969. One of those projects led me to being interested in the cell lineages, because I wanted to know where the dopamine-containing cells came from.
I was in the midst of a hobby project, a method for displaying catecholamines as bright fluorescent adducts. After some fiddling around, it worked and gave some beautiful patterns. It was clear that a very small subset of neurons contained dopamine and some contained serotonin. That was really no big deal.
However, what was potentially a big deal was that some of those cells appeared only after the embryo hatched. There had been a general view floating around, one of those urban myths, that there really wasn''t any neural development after hatching. So I thought we should follow this up.
I started looking at these cells with Nomarski microscopes, of which there were several around the lab. I was lucky enough to stumble on a way to just look at them, without any fancy photography, and discover where the cells came from.
But then, we realized that other sections of the nervous system also developed post-hatching. The long and short of it was that I found myself able to watch dividing cells.
JG: At some point you moved from looking not just at neural cell divisions to looking at the whole thing.
JS: That''s right. Just bit by bit. The very first lineaging was the ventral cord, a set of motor neurons that make the organism move in a sinusoidal wave, backwards and forwards.
Just after that, Bob Horvitz showed up. He was a hard-core molecular biologist. He thought all this zoology stuff was a bit of rubbish. He was fairly amazed that a guy was sitting there studying cell lineages.
It was quite an interesting rapprochement. Bob wr