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Sir Alec Jeffreys and DNA fingerprinting

Posted by on July 9, 2014

To celebrate the place of Sir Alec Jeffreys Hon FRSB in the top ten biologists who’ve changed the world, Alastair Stewart, communications and press manager at the Biochemical Society, writes about the achievements of one of their most celebrated members.

Listen to Sir Alec Jeffreys being interviewed by Professor Alison Woollard FRSB at the RSB’s fundraising event in May 2016.

It has reunited a mother with her two-month-old son separated in the Boxing Day tsunami, given freedom to an innocent man on death row, and returned the remains of September 11 victims to their families.

It is DNA fingerprinting – the discovery by Sir Alec Jeffreys one Monday morning 30 years ago that revolutionised the world.

DNA fingerprinting is an ability to identify the unique variations in each individual’s DNA. We are full of these unique markers – in our blood and bones and hair and saliva. Every time we go for a run we literally sweat our individual genetic code.

It was a ‘eureka moment’ for Sir Alec when, at 9.05am, 10 September 1984, he created the world’s first genetic fingerprint. “My first reaction to the results was ‘this is too complicated’, and then the penny dropped and I realised we had genetic fingerprinting,” he said in a University of Leicester interview.

DNA fingerprinting is widely known for its use in fighting crime, and indeed this was one of its first real world applications. A year after his discovery, Sir Alec and his team had developed a “genetic profiling” technique for forensic use. It was soon put to use to identify and convict a man who murdered and raped two girls in the Enderby area of Leicestershire.

These days the use of DNA in crime is widespread. More than 17,000 offences are solved each year thanks to genetic fingerprinting, according to the BBC. It works in reverse too – the Innocence Project in America has seen more than 300 convictions overturned because of DNA evidence, including eighteen people sentenced to death.

The applications of genetic fingerprinting go far beyond fighting crime. In a paternity dispute over a two-month baby found after the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, DNA was used to identify the baby’s actual parents.

Many African Americans have no idea of their ancestral heritage, with their forebears removed from Africa during the slave trade and very little records kept. DNA fingerprinting has been used to trace the family history of African-Americans and identify their heritage.

Sir Alec once said his life changed that fateful Monday morning 30 years ago. It is fair to say that it changed for many millions of others as well.

Biology: Changing the World is a heritage project of the Society, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and in partnership with the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

Listen to Sir Alec Jeffreys being interviewed by Professor Alison Woollard FRSB at the RSB’s fundraising event in May 2016.

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