Curriculum Vitae

Primary School

Hinton, Newtown County Primary School, Sharpness Gloucestershire

Secondary School

Dursley Grammar School, Dursley Gloucestershire.

University: 1978 PhD University of Cambridge  “Sequence Analysis of bacteriophage QX174”


Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, United Kingdom

1963-1978       Research Officer/ Senior Research Officer

1974-1977       PhD student, King’s College, Cambridge.

1978-1993       Scientific Staff

Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Hinxton, Cambridgeshire, United Kingdom

1993-2005       Board of Management

1993-1995       Head of Yeast Genetics

1996-2005       Head of Pathogen Sequencing Unit


Elected member European Molecular Biology Organization 1986

Elected member Human Genome Organization 1989


Over 176 publications in the field of nucleotide sequencing and analysis including many published in Nature and Science. See separate page.

Career Resume/Biographical Sketch:

From an early age I was deeply interested in natural history and specialised in Biology and Chemistry in my final years at secondary school.  In 1958 the Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to Fred Sanger for the structure of the first protein and in 1962 the Nobel Prizes for Chemistry and Medicine were awarded to Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins for the discovery of the structure of DNA and to Max Perutz and John Kendrew for studies on globular proteins. These sparked my interest in Molecular Biology and I lectured to the School Scientific Society on the structure of proteins and nucleic acids. On leaving school I was keen to start work in science and not to carry on with education despite being awarded a County Major Scholarship to attend university. 

In 1963 I was extremely lucky to become Fred Sanger’s personal assistant at the Medical Research Council Laboratory for Molecular Biology in Cambridge and where, Crick, Perutz and Kendrew also were.

I joined the laboratory at a time before any nucleic sequences were published and Fred Sanger was changing from protein sequencing to nucleic acid sequencing. The laboratory had a very open structure with no divisions between levels of staff.  This fostered a tremendous atmosphere of interaction and endeavour.  I quickly developed expertise in sequencing and analysis and I became in demand by the many postdoctoral visitors from all over the world, particularly the US, working in the laboratory.

In 1965 we published rapid and simple methods for RNA sequencing (Sanger Brownlee & Barrell, 1965) using these to sequence 5S ribosomal RNA, a number of tRNAs and other small molecules before turning to fragments of bacteriophage RNA and the first coding sequences. 

During this time I became more independent, with, generally, Sanger preferring to work on new technology and me trying to apply this technology in the field to sequence ever more challenging molecules. About 1970 we turned our attention to DNA, first using direct methods to sequence fragments of bacteriophage DNA and later, with primed synthesis methods, bacteriophage phiX (Sanger et al 1977). 

In 1974 Sanger suggested that I should work towards a PhD.  I was enrolled as a PhD student at Cambridge and joined King’s College.  Throughout my 3 years as a PhD student I was able to keep my salary and my position at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology.  This was crucial because as a mature student, I was married, had just bought my first house and had started to raise a family.   Uniquely, apart from those whose studies were interrupted by the second world war, I embarked on a PhD without having a first degree.

 In my PhD I set out to determine the sequence of the regions between genes D, E and J and to try and solve the problem of the discrepancy between the genetic map and the physical map of bacteriophage phiX whereby there was not enough room to fit all the known phix genes into the space available.   The advance of the technology was such that I was able to sequence the entire region and show that, amazingly, the discovery of the overlapping genes D and E used the same coding DNA sequence but different translational phases (Barrell et al 1976).

Following my PhD, in 1978 I went onto the Scientific Staff of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology and formed my own group first working on human mitochondrial DNA while Fred Sanger turned to bacteriophage lambda. 

 I was able to demonstrate the different genetic code (Barrell et al 1979) and different pattern of codon recognition (Barrell et al 1980) and other unique features of the 15 kb human mt genome (Anderson et al 1981). 

During this time we established the “shotgun” approach to DNA sequencing using random cloning of fragments in single stranded bacteriophage, primed synthesis with a universal primer and the dideoxynucleotide chain termination method (Sanger et al 1980).  

Using this we were able to complete the sequence of the 172 kb genome of Epstein Barr virus in 1984 (Baer et al 1984). 

Throughout the 1980s we continued to make improvements to the manual shotgun sequencing technology. In 1990 we published the sequence of human cytomegalovirus (230kb) (Chee et al 1990).  

With the advent of fluorescent sequencing technology we turned our attention to yeast. 

In 1992 John Sulston, Jane Rogers, Richard Durbin, David Bentley and Alan Coulson and myself were awarded £50M funding from the Wellcome Trust to establish the Sanger Centre, moving to the Hinxton site in 1993. 

We were the largest single contributor to the yeast genome (Goffeau et al 1996). While the main thrust of the Sanger Centre continued with C. elegans and the human genome, we turned our attention to pathogens.  The Wellcome Trust took the decision to set up a Pathogen Sequencing Unit (PSU) at Sanger and made awards for the yeast teams to carry out pilot projects on the causative agents of malaria and TB.  This resulted in the sequences of Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Cole et al 1998) and Plasmodium falciparum (Gardner et al 2002). The PSU developed into a full scale programme of pathogen sequencing supported by WT grants awarded by the Beowulf panel which were later incorporated into the core funding of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute.  

The PSU completed the genome sequences of a large number organisms including the causative agents for human and bovine TB, whooping cough, amoebic dysentery, leishmaniasis, sleeping sickness, human and rodent malaria, plague, typhoid fever, leprosy, melioidosis, diphtheria, bacterial meningitis, food poisoning, etc.

In my last two or three years at Hinxton, I gave up all administration, stepped down as head of the PSU and went back to the “bench” which for me was analysing genomes displayed and annotated using the Artemis software we had developed.  This is what I loved best and what I was good at. Unlike everybody else I analysed genomes manually by “eye”.  Yes, I used computer generated analyses, but I looked at all sequences and manually annotated them. Being one of the first people to look at nucleic acid sequences I soon learnt the genetic code and built up my own database in my own memory of sequences and patterns in DNA and this enabled me to spot new things that you would not necessarily find using computers alone.

© Barclay Barrell 2014