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Made for the job - decoding the human genome is no obstacle with a stammer

Don Powell | 01.09.2001

By Don Powell

It isn't one man against the genome, but the achievements of Alan Tracey at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Centre at Hinxton, make it seem like it could be. Alan is just one of a worldwide community of scientific researchers who have contributed to the Human Genome Project. But in just two years, working a standard 9:00am-5:00pm week, he alone has finished more than one percent of the genome sequence. Alan also has a severe stammer. Has that been a disadvantage?

"Alan has a severe stammer, but it's not an obstacle"."YES," he says quickly, and then laughs. "Of course it's an impediment, but it's not an obstacle that prevents you from getting anywhere. It just makes things a bit harder, but everyone has something that makes life just a little more difficult for them."

Allan Bradley, director of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Centre, said, "Alan's achievement is a remarkable one in a field which we believe to be intrinsically important to the Human Genome Project. Finishing is a stage that allows us to produce the most accurate sequence possible, which can only serve to benefit society as a whole."

John Sulston, former director of the Sanger Centre, said, "Thanks to Alan and his colleagues, the Sanger Centre has a larger output of finished sequence than any other centre. Alan's phenomenal contribution is testimony both to his own efforts and to his work with the global team of the Human Genome Project."

Alan, just 26, was born and raised in Birmingham. He attended King Edward VI Aston Grammar School before going on to complete one year at the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design at Bournville. But it was not until after he graduated from Anglia Polytechnic University in 1997 with a degree in geography, that he began to realise his strengths actually lay in science.

Alan, who lives in Sawston with his wife Lisa, is one of the 'finishers' at the Centre - researchers whose job is to make sure the human genome has been decoded properly.

Our genome - the set of instructions to make a person - consists of over 3000 million letters, and Alan has just passed the 35 million mark. Buried in that text are sections of code that could hold the key to understanding disease.

It is up to the finishing teams to fill as many of the gaps as possible that are left by the standard sequencing process. Finishers have to work out what the missing letters are in a sequence. Finished sequence is the Gold Standard being produced by the Human Genome Project as the resource for biomedical research in decades to come.

"Finishing is the final step in solving this huge puzzle - the human genome," said Alan. "It's a job I feel is just made for me. It's great to have achieved so much, but it is part of a team effort - all the work at the Sanger Centre relies on the efforts of other team members."

Alan's motivation is partly his faith - he is a committed Christian - and partly mundane bribery. Sophie Williams, who has recently taken over Alan's team, likes to reward the team when they do well "When it goes well, we have cakes. This has the dual role of encouraging and rewarding the team's efforts."

"Alans phenomenal contribution is testament both to his own efforts and to his work with the global team of the Human Genome Project"."The whole team - like teams throughout the Sanger Centre - is friendly and relaxed, yet productive. You must remember that at the Sanger Centre huge efforts in decoding the human genome are entrusted to young, enthusiastic and - it sounds surprising - ordinary people. There is an atmosphere here of doing the 'right' thing that fires us all."

The Human Genome Project is an international collaboration to decode the human genome: the role of the Wellcome Trust's Sanger Centre is to sequence one-third of the genome and to provide large-scale research to understand our genome. The Human Genome Project releases all its research for free, without restriction, in order to speed up scientific and medical developments with the aim of improving worldwide human healthcare.

From the Autumn 2001 edition of Speaking Out