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.
"...fascinating and fast-moving... a masterful personal account of the incredible tale of the effort that will shape the study of biology and our inheritance for decades to come."
-- Nature Medicine, December 2002
"The Common Thread has a good story to tell and tells it well. ... What makes The Common Thread noteworthy reading is Sulston's ethical scientific vision, which shines uncompromisingly through every chapter in this book."
-- San Jose Mercury News, December 8, 2002
"This is a gripping insider's story of the Human Genome Project, revealing both the exciting science leading to it and the battle to keep the results, 'the heritage of humanity,' secure from control by private interests. ... The people, of course, are the most intriguing part of the story."
-- The New England Journal of Medicine, May 1, 2003
"...a story that is both celebratory and critical. ... It is both the story of the writer and the story of a major scientific enterprise that has changed -- perhaps forever -- the way we think about science and scientists."
-- American Scientist, May-June 2003
"... excellent ... recommended for readers willing to go beyond sound bites and media hype."
-- Library Journal
"This very interesting and important book details from the author's perspective the development of the Human Genome Project. ... This book is fascinating in the way it touches on all the scientific and administrative problems that stood in the way of getting things done. ... On the whole, this is a great contribution to the documentation and the drama of being present in the midst of a great scientific quest. The authors, who played a major role in the project, deserve credit not only for what they did but the way in which they wrote about it."
-- Oncology Times, October 25, 2003
"Overall, a fascinating account of science conducted in an atmosphere of big money, politics, and personalities. Summing Up: Highly recommended."
-- CHOICE, May 2003
"This is a great story, one that will be mined in the future by historians of the epochal Human Genome Project. ...it is a splendid discussion of how science is done nowadays. (The 'beer-fuelled discussions' between participants are recounted, as well as possible, in their place.) The difficult aspects of the struggle between public science and private science get a thorough and thoughtful history here. Read this account and rejoice in a big win for humanity and the common good over profits, this time."
-- The Times of Acadiana, April 2, 2003
"Few figures have played a larger role in the international human genome project than Sir John Sulston. The Common Thread provides a fascinating insider's view of the unprecedented team effort that ultimately put all the letters of the human instruction book on the Internet. If you really want to know what happened, this is the book to read!"
-- Francis Collins, Director, National Human Genome Research Institute, National Institutes of Health
"A compelling, honest account of how the Human DNA Sequence of three billion As, Ts, Gs, and Cs became freely available to the peoples of the world."
-- James D. Watson, author of The Double Helix and Girls, Genes, and Gamow
"After many over-dramatized pontifications about the significance of the human genome by journalists, ethicists, medicine men, and others, it is refreshing to read about the direct experience of sequencing genomes, written by someone who actually did a large share of the work."
-- Harold Varmus, President, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and Former Director, National Institutes of Health
"...a compelling and frank account of [Sulston's] progress from worms to humans, and from publicity-shy researcher to his place as one of the most respected thinkers on the relationship between science and society... Sir John cogently makes the case that corporate control of the genetic code will be bad for the progress of science and mankind, as well as being repugnant. He links the controversy to the wider issues of globalisation and the dominance of the profit motive, and he gives a warning that the battle against a frontier-style genetic land-grab has yet to be won."
-- The Times
"The Common Thread burns with a passion and a sense of injustice that I have never felt before in a book by a successful scientist... John Sulston, who led the large British contribution to the Human Genome Project, wrote this book with Georgina Ferry, a professional science writer, to put the record straight... I found this a riveting account of what was going on behind the scenes... Anyone who is fascinated by the politics and ethics of research should read The Common Thread."
-- The Financial Times
"Much has been written about the human genome and the project to sequence it, but this is the first book by one of the scientists who played a large part in getting it done... The dominant message in the book is that the human genome sequence belongs to everybody and that we should all have free access to it."
"Unputdownable stuff, with the good guys and the bad guys clearly labeled it is an insider's story of one of the century's greatest technopolitical ventures. Future historians of the Genome Project will find rich pickings within it."
-- The Guardian
"The Common Thread is Sulston's candid account from the front line... It's a lively read..."
-- New Scientist
"The Common Thread is an enjoyable book. ... The story that Sulston and Ferry tell is an important one. We tend to see science, especially big industrial science, as being intrinsically inhuman. What Sulston and Ferry reveal is that human concerns, from wonder and a desire to be a benefit to the whole human race, to greed and manipulation, operate even at the highest levels of big science."
-- Metapsychology Online, May 2003
"The 'book of life' -- a.k.a. the sequence of the human genome -- is now open to all. But things might easily have been otherwise... This is the story of how a coalition of scientists fought to ensure that no one could claim to own this information, from the point of view of a key combatant... The book aims to explain, blow by blow, how the forces of good narrowly won the first battle... John Sulston has been our Harry Potter; the future is more frightening without him."
-- The Independent
"The Common Thread provides an enthralling blow-by-blow account of one of science's great achievements... The Common Thread is a tale of academic triumph with a subplot of acrimony, distrust, resentment and conflict. It offers an insider's view of how corporate America manipulated both the media and government to engineer a race to sequence the human genome..."
-- Sun Herald (Sydney, Australia), August 10, 2003
"It is not the dogma of a sandal-wearing Lefty (as Sulston is often depicted), but the deep belief of the archetypal English radical. And, as with so many of his predecessors, from Payne to Cobbett, Britain is much the richer for his existence."
-- The Observer
"In June 2000 the world was told that the first draft of the human genome -- the entire 3.1 billion unit set of genetic instructions which governs the assembly and functioning of all human beings -- was complete... Thanks to the intractable idealism of John Sulston, all this information is freely available to anyone in the world who has access to the internet, to make use of in any way they wish. As this gripping book makes clear, this victory was a near-run thing... The Common Thread relates this important story with exemplary clarity... As science grows more and more impenetrable to the non-scientist, we need such impassioned communications to make clear the human consequences of its findings."
-- The Sunday Telegraph
"Outlines the background to mapping and sequencing the human genome, the practicalities of doing it, and the public and private feuds that almost destroyed the venture ... a startling insight."
-- The Lancet
"John Sulston is one of those who made the dream of the reading of the human genome possible. This is the story of how, while others grandstanded, a self-effacing scientist put together the techniques, ideas, alliances and funding to make whole-genome sequencing a possibility. It is also the untold story of how he fought for his vision of a genome freely accessible to all -- when too many others were prepared to concede that it would instead become a corporate monopoly..."
-- Matt Ridley, author of Genome
"[Sulston's] personal account of his own contribution is eloquent in its sadness and anger. For what it's worth, he believes that the mutual alienation between science and the humanities has a lot to do with the commercial ownership and exploitation of the technology with which science is increasingly identified. He understands the greed behind the 'privatising of the human genome'. But he also understands science as a greater, more lyrical, story of adventure than the lay public yet understands."
-- Sunday Herald
"The events described in The Common Thread will be of profound importance to everyone... John Sulston is well placed to relate recent events and to consider their implications. In this book with Georgina Ferry, he gives a fascinating history of the project ... I recommend the book unreservedly to those interested in the accurate history of the project. For the non-specialist, The Common Thread is an easy and interesting read... The book should be compulsory reading for politicians who, by defining the scope of patents, will determine the future development and availability of large areas of new medicine."
-- The Times Higher Education Supplement
"...an important book, charting this fascinating new branch of scientific progress in detail. Luckily, The Common Thread makes easy reading and presents an intriguing look into the changing face of science, for better or worse, from increasing the sum total of human knowledge for its own sake to the corporatisation and hoarding of results. Sulston also skillfully broaches the topics of patenting biotechnological discoveries rather than inventions, genetic determinism, gene therapy, eugenics and 'designer babies.' ... A story which deserves to be told."
-- The Oxford Student, May 2, 2002
"The Common Thread is a gripping description of the personalities, power-broking, financial wheeling and dealing -- and, above all, the science -- behind the genome project."
-- Chemistry in Britain
"John Sulston and Georgina Ferry have produced a book with all the elements required to keep a reader happy: a good story, goodies and baddies, big money and big politics... This is a perfect book to give to anyone working in the science or health industry. No matter how detailed or how scanty their knowledge is of the Human Genome Project, they will find it interesting and readable. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The chatty, personal style in combination with the importance of the issues raised made it hard to put down. ... It leaves you with the feeling that molecular biology is a field that really matters, and that those who have paved the way were basically men of honour."
-- EMBO Reports
"An engaging book ... that tells the story of the project to date. The style is simple, almost conversational, which means that the scientific content is as accessible as it can be. Having read it, a non-scientist such as myself has a better idea of what the Human Genome Project means. ... scientists and policymakers in developing countries would benefit by thinking clearly about the issues raised in this thought-provoking book."
-- SciDev Net
"The lesson learned from this salutary saga is greater than the triumph of the human genome. It's about whether science, in general, should be public or private knowledge -- a question preoccupying university and research organisations the world over, as public funding dwindles and burgeoning corporate sponsorship is considered the only way to make ends meet. The Common Thread is a testimony to those of Sulston's ilk who feel the common good is an ideal still worth pursuing."
-- The Age
"The incomparably best book that has been written about the patenting of the building blocks of life, about genes, alleles and DNA-segments. ... Nobody who in a serious manner wants to participate in the debate about the right of the companies to patent these building blocks of life should express him- or herself before she has read and pondered this book."