Categories: Sanger Life14 April 2023

Celebrations, community, and a common aim

Some of our staff reflect on their experiences of working on the Human Genome Project, what it means to them, and how the Wellcome Sanger Institute has grown.

Siobhan Austin-Guest and Neil Sycamore were finishers on the Human Genome Project, piecing together the gaps in the chromosomes. Nancy Holroyd was also a finisher, on pathogen genomes, but contributed to the HGP by loading gels on the sequencing machines in her spare time. Liz Easthope was a Research Assistant in the development team, and Steve Bentley worked on the annotation and assembly of bacterial genomes.

What memories stand out from your time working on the Human Genome Project (HGP)?

"I used to love watching the people pouring the sequencing gels and the robot picking blue/white selected colonies. There was a general feeling of excitement because we were clearly venturing into completely new territory." – Steve Bentley

"By far, it was the sense of community, camaraderie and family. Even people who were not directly working on HGP (such as myself) felt part of it, and felt that we were all contributing to and witnessing something very special. It was a very inclusive time, and everyone was consulted on what could be done to speed up 'the race' to complete the human genome and ensure that it was publicly available to all." – Nancy Holroyd

"The celebrations as we reached each milestone. It felt so great to be part of something so groundbreaking." – Siobohan Austin-Guest

"It was like working for a start-up. We were young, the science was new and we were in uncharted waters never knowing what new discovery or technique was waiting for you the next day." – Neil Sycamore

"The flood of the West Pavillion… I remember myself and colleague at the top of the lift in West Pavillion waiting for double height fridges and freezers to be sent up to us. Looking down from the bridge and seeing John Sulston in wellies mucking in carrying fridges out via the road way too. This displayed the camaraderie that was seen throughout." – Liz Easthorpe

The social side of the Institute is fondly remembered, as everyone commented on the BBQs, parties, champagne celebrations, cake, sports competitions, pantos and T-shirts that regularly brought people together.

Can you reflect on the changes you’ve seen in technology?

"We were always looking to improve on the previous week’s results, consistent longer reads (when I started in 1999, 100bp [base pairs] was impressive!), more shotgun assembly and cheaper chemistry costs. The sequencing methods changed many times from large slab gels to the ABI 3700 [capillary sequencing] and the read lengths improved to 500bp. Today’s short read and long read sequencers are in another universe!" – Neil

"My role was to get the ABI 3700 capillary sequencing into production instead of slab gel technology which was being used up to that point. My role changed from working within the R&D lab looking at the 3700 and the MegaBase instrument into training members of the loading team on how to use the instrument in a production setting.

"At one point the HGP would have seem almost inconceivable, and then it was achieved." – Liz

What changes have stood out to you at the Sanger Institute since the HGP?

"When I started I knew everyone I passed in the corridor and I knew everyone’s name, with the huge growth of the Institute and now multiple buildings that wouldn't be possible now." – Liz

"Growth! It was a much smaller campus. It’s been great to watch the campus grow and change over the last 24 years." – Sibohan

"It was super friendly, vibrant and active. Everyone seemed to know everyone else. Sanger is still super friendly, vibrant and active, but it's harder to know who everyone is now!" – Nancy

How has the HGP impacted you?

"When the finisher role became no more due to technology changes and projects changing focus, I moved to a project coordinator role and then Scientific Service Representative role within Sequencing Operations. I haven't moved far from my initial role really. I am still working in a role that supports faculty science...and I still enjoy the role as much as when I was working on the HGP." – Siobhan

"The breadth of skills needed by the team to set up such an operation was incredible. It could never have been achieved by relying on one type of thinking involved." – Liz

"It’s had a huge impact revolutionising science and medicine. The legacy also is one of openness and inclusivity: I love this about the way Sanger tackled the HGP. So proud to have been involved in the HGP at Sanger!" – Nancy

"It’s something I'm incredibly proud to have been involved in. I was a small cog in a very large wheel - but without those small cogs we wouldn't have the great reference genome regularly used by scientists today." – Siobhan

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