History of the Sanger Institute
The origins of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute are intertwined with those of the Human Genome Project.
In the 1980s, people such as Jim Watson, co-discoverer of the DNA double helix, proposed that sequencing all three billion letters of the human genetic code might be possible. It was argued that the sequence would be an invaluable tool for biomedical research.
The human genome - the book of instructions needed to build a human being - is written in a four-letter DNA code. Although small genomes had been sequenced, the human genome was on a completely different scale. Many felt that it was a step too far, or would squeeze resources out of other areas of science.
Enter the worm
Meantime, mapping and sequencing continued on other smaller organisms, including the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans. Central to this work was John Sulston, then at the Medical Research Council (MRC) Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. He and other members of the 'worm community' had pioneered an open, collaborative approach to genome research.
While the MRC had invested heavily in the sequencing of the worm genome, work on the human genome, 30 times the size of the worm's, would have been a very major undertaking. The Wellcome Trust saw that a human genome sequence would be a force for accelerating biomedical research – one of the main aims of the Trust – and seized the opportunity to support the global Human Genome Project.
Fortunately, at this point the Wellcome Trust was able to step in and, jointly with the MRC, establish a centre dedicated to genome sequencing. The Hinxton Hall estate became available and existing laboratories there were quickly converted. By April 1993, 15 researchers were at work, and construction began on modernising an existing research building. The Sanger Centre, as it was then known, was formally opened by Fred Sanger in October 1993.
Full steam ahead
The new facilities, added to over the following years, enabled the Sanger Institute to become one of the world's most productive genome sequencing centres.
It has played key roles in the worm and yeast genome projects and has sequenced more than 30 pathogen genomes. In 1998, the Wellcome Trust increased its financial contribution in the Human Genome Project, upping the Sanger Institute's contribution from one-sixth to one-third.
In 2000 John Sulston retired as director and Allan Bradley was recruited from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, USA, to take his place.
Under Professor Bradley, the Sanger Institute has continued its sequencing work but has also diversified, developing other large-scale, high-throughput systems to tackle key biological questions.
This phase of its work is linked to the construction of new research and computer facilities, to support an expansion of the Sanger Institute workforce.