Genome project: 'This means new opportunities for medicine'

John Sulston, aged 58, is a former director of the Sanger Centre in Cambridgeshire and a leading member of the Human Genome Project team. This is his account of his breakthrough year
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The Independent Online

Our success in unravelling the human genome was a huge international effort, funded by a diverse group of organisations who had sponsored a kaleidoscopic blend of people around the world. Most important of all, in my mind, was that it resulted in the human genome sequence being freely available to all without any restriction. And this despite some powerful commercial opposition.

Our success in unravelling the human genome was a huge international effort, funded by a diverse group of organisations who had sponsored a kaleidoscopic blend of people around the world. Most important of all, in my mind, was that it resulted in the human genome sequence being freely available to all without any restriction. And this despite some powerful commercial opposition.

It was so important to me and my colleagues because the legacy of the human genetic code, the product of millions of years of evolution, belongs to us all. The announcement in June that we had obtained the draft sequence caused a great stir. The fuss and press coverage almost seemed too much for what is, really, just one more step in our understanding of ourselves. Nevertheless, the enormous public interest generated in our milestone gave the opportunity for everyone to debate about how we can use this information. After all, the genome is the basic recipe of a person. Knowing the complete genetic sequence opens up new opportunities in medicine.

As is the nature of legacies, our children and their children will feel the greatest benefits of what we are doing now. But they could also face challenges. So one of the messages I'd like to get across at the close of the year 2000 is that we need to understand and discuss what can and should be achieved by knowing this genomic information at this early stage while all the options are still open.

My personal event of the year was stepping down as director of the Sanger Centre in Cambridge after its first eight years. I had actually made the choice a couple of years ago to ensure that the lab continues with renewed vigour and is capable of seizing the opportunities for the future. It was both sad and immensely exciting for me to hand over the reins. The team spirit there is extraordinary, and I owe everyone so much for making it work so well.

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