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The world was agog when scientists made the astounding announcement that they had successfully sequenced the human genome. Few contributed so directly to this feat as John Sulston. This is his personal account of one of the largest international scientific operations ever undertaken.
It was a momentous occasion when British scientist John Sulston embarked on the greatest scientific endeavor of our times: the sequencing of the Human Genome. In The Common Thread, Sulston takes us behind the scenes for an in-depth look at the controversial story behind the headlines. The accomplishments and the setbacks—along with the politics, personalities, and ethics—that shaped the research are frankly explored by a central figure key to the project.
From the beginning, Sulston fervently proclaimed his belief in the free and open exchange of the scientific information that would emerge from the project. Guided by these principles, The Human Genome Project was structured so that all the findings were public, encouraging an unparalleled international collaboration among scientists and researchers.
Then, in May 1998, Craig Venter announced that he was quitting the Human Genome Project—with plans to head up a commercial venture launched to bring out the complete sequence three years hence, but marketed in a proprietary database. Venter’s intentions, clearly anathema to Sulston and the global network of scientists working on the Project, marked the beginning of a dramatic struggle to keep the human genome in the public domain.
More than the story of human health versus corporate wealth, this is an exploration of the very nature of a scientific quest for discovery. Infused with Sulston’s own enthusiasm and excitement, the tale unfolds to reveal the scientists who painstakingly turn the key that will unlock the riddle of the human genome. We are privy to the joy and exuberance of success as well as the stark disappointments posed by inevitable failures. It is truly a wild and wonderful ride.
The Common Thread is at once a compelling history and an impassioned call for ethical responsibility in scientific research. As the boundaries between science and big business increasingly blur, and researchers race to patent medical discoveries, the international community needs to find a common protocol for the protection of the wider human interest. This extraordinary enterprise is a glimpse of our shared human heritage, offering hope for future research and a fresh outlook on our understanding of ourselves.
John Sulston was the director of the Sanger Centre in Cambridge, England. From 1993 to 2000, he led the British arm of the international team selected to work on the Human Genome Project. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society and was knighted in the 2001 New Year’s Honours List for his contribution to science, most notably for his efforts to sequence the human genome.
Georgina Ferry is a science writer and broadcaster in the United Kingdom. She is the author of Dorothy Hodgkin: A Life, which was shortlisted for both the Duff Cooper Prize as well as the Marsh Biography Award.
John Sulston, et al. 2002. The Common Thread: A Story of Science, Politics, Ethics, and the Human Genome. Washington, DC: Joseph Henry Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/10373.
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