Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys

Posted by ac555 at Mar 31, 2015 10:55 AM |
The University of Leicester's Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys who pioneered the invention of DNA fingerprinting looks back on his 'Eureka' moment for Code of a Killer
Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys

Source: ITV Press Centre

Why did you agree to take part in Code of a Killer?

This is a landmark case of the 20th century. So it’s very much a tradition of TV to dramatise these sort of investigations. It is by any measure an extraordinary drama. And it’s not just DNA. It’s that combination of DNA and excellent police work, converging together to crack what were very, very serious crimes.

2014 marked the 30th anniversary of the very first DNA fingerprint and after the initial work of immigration cases and paternity cases, we then got involved with the Dawn Ashworth murder case in Enderby. That is an extraordinary case and the story needed to be told. Particularly with such distinguished actors as John Simm and David Threlfall playing the key parts.

How do you feel about John Simm playing you?

John is such a nice guy and a great actor. I can’t think of anybody more suitable to portray me. There’s something about him that reminds me of myself. He’s very much a character actor and has done a great job. I was already a fan of his work.

It was a slightly surreal experience to meet ‘me’. My hair was somewhat longer than that. I was a bit of a ‘beardie-weirdy’ back in the mid-80s. But in terms of overall build and looks and so on, it’s not a bad match.

What was the background to that Monday morning on September 10th 1984 and the ‘Eureka Moment’ when you discovered DNA fingerprinting?

I had arrived at Leicester University in 1977 and one of my first jobs was to try and identify variation directly in DNA, in the genetic material. We were one of the first labs ever to attempt this. And we did it. But then our interests started focusing on highly variable bits of DNA. Why? Because we were interested in using these for medical genetic analysis. Trying to identify genes involved in inherited disease and cancer, for example.

So when the key experiment happened it was purely accidentally that we came up with what proved to be the world’s first DNA fingerprint. That was Monday morning on the 10th of September 1984, five past nine. Imagine, if you will, me rather bleary from a weekend doing whatever, going into the dark room, developing this piece of X-ray film, switching the light on and then looking at this very complicated bar-coded patterns on the film.

The first reaction was, ‘What on Earth is going on here? This is not what I expected.’ It was quite a complicated looking mess. Then the penny dropped. Lo and behold here were, by accident, the world’s very first DNA fingerprints.

On that bit of film we had the DNA of a technician from the department and her mother and father. We could see how we could tell them all apart in a single DNA test. How the DNA fingerprint of the technician was a composite of bits of mum and bits of dad. That told us we could use it for family relationships.

The film also contained a whole series of non-human species. We had a cow and a monkey and a rat and even tobacco DNA. Everything seemed to work. So not only was this DNA-based identification applicable to humans, it was applicable to just about everything. And that opened up great vistas, not just in terms of human applications but things like conservation, biology, wildlife, crime and so on. All of which have come to fruition.

Code of a Killer is a recognition, first of all of fundamental curiosity-driven research that’s impacted on the world. So we must protect that type of investigation in universities.


Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys

And that Monday morning itself in 1984?

It really was a ‘Eureka Moment’. That is not myth. The best description I’ve ever seen of how we came across DNA fingerprinting was a school project from my grandson who said, ‘My grandad invented DNA fingerprinting by accident when he was messing around in the lab.’ And that is as good a description as you could possibly get. It was purely by accident we stumbled across an alternative use for these bits of DNA.

You were pushing at an open door and immediately realised the full implications of this discovery?

It was doors opening upon doors that we hadn’t realised were even there. So it was five past nine on a Monday morning when we got that result. At ten past nine we were thinking serious forensic thoughts, ‘This is DNA-based biological identification.’ The important point is that at 9am, five minutes before developing that film, I didn’t have a single forensic thought in my head. My focus was on medical genetics.

We didn’t just realise the full implications of what we had discovered. We ran with it. By the end of the year we’d improved the technology to the point where we knew it could be applied. By April 1985 we were doing the first DNA case ever anywhere in the world - in an immigration dispute.

How would you describe the outcome of that immigration case where DNA identification was used for the first time at a tribunal?

It was my golden moment. Being down at the Immigration Tribunal in London where we saved a young lad from deportation by proving he was, indeed, who his family said he was. The look in the mother’s eyes, that was a magic moment. Suddenly two years of grief and stress just lifted off her. All thanks to DNA.

Did you have any doubts this new DNA technique might not be endorsed by the authorities?

The question was, ‘Would they accept it?’ So here was this long-haired scruffy academic coming out of nowhere, waving these bits of DNA around. And, of course, nobody had heard of DNA in those days. Everybody knows today that you can use DNA to catch criminals and work out paternity cases. That’s common knowledge now. Back in those days it wasn’t even on the radar. So we had what I thought was going to be a gigantic mountain to climb of getting this evidence accepted. But, again, it was pushing at an open door. We took the first paternity case on in the summer of 1985 and then the Enderby murder case came in early 1986.

What was your reaction when police first contacted you about a murder investigation?

This was a double rape and murder case local to Leicestershire. So we obviously felt a huge moral obligation to take it on. We could not say no. It was a very important investigation. But we took it on in the full expectation we would get absolutely nothing out of it in terms of results.

Nobody had ever attempted this before. It’s one thing doing DNA fingerprinting on fresh blood samples. But real crime scene samples were a whole new and different kettle of fish. So we took it on expecting to get nothing and, to our amazement, it worked.

The first test requested by police did not provide the result they were expecting?

It was a real shock. And I think the person most shocked was myself. The police already had this young man in custody who had confessed to the second murder but not the first. My remit was to confirm he was tied in to the first murder. But also to try and tie him in to the first murder because both murders were very similar. So we took that on expecting to get everything matching up.

What we found was the key forensic evidence from both victims matched at the DNA level. So there was a single rapist/murderer out there. But the results were a complete mis-match with this young man.

My first reaction was one of complete horror. That there was something wrong with the technology. Not that this was a false confession. It took additional testing, not just by me but also by some of my colleagues at the Home Office Forensic Science Service who we gave these samples to. We all came to the same conclusion. This was a false confession.

You had cleared a young man who may well otherwise have gone to prison for a long time?

I have little doubt, given the confession and other circumstantial evidence, he would have gone to jail for the rest of his life. And the true perpetrator would still be out there killing other people.

Then came a police request for mass DNA screening of men in the area?

This was the only lab in the world that could do this sort of DNA testing at the time. So we were inundated with immigration disputes, paternity disputes and requests from other criminal investigations. I was also trying to keep the science going and negotiating with Home Office ministers about ramping up the immigration aspect. I was a very busy person.  So it was a great relief when I heard the Forensic Science Service was going to carry on with the next phase of the screening.

Your reaction when in September 1987 the real double rapist and the killer was arrested and later convicted?

Great relief for the families of both victims. That they had caught the perpertrator and those families could now start moving towards closure. Also huge personal relief. Here was a serial murderer who I knew had to live fairly close to where I lived, who was out on the loose. He would have known who I was, where my laboratory was, where my home was. So there were issues of personal security.

Your name, that of your team and the University will live on forever in history. Now retired and looking back, how do you feel about that?

I still have to pinch myself. It really is a fairy tale. We knew we were on to something, right back at the beginning in September 1984. But we had no idea just how big it would get. We always thought DNA, in the forensic arena, would be a technology of last resort. So if you were to tell me back then that in 2015 we would now have DNA directly having touched the lives of at least 50 million people - a startling number - worldwide and every single one of those applications is a human drama, I would have said, ‘No way.’ It is gigantic. I think we’re up to one per cent of the entire world population has now been directly affected by this.

It has given police around the world the most powerful scientific tool they have ever had?

You can debate whether fingerprints was equally or more important. But DNA fingerprinting was a new and very powerful tool. You have to put it in the context of what they had before with genetics. Which was blood groups of very limited utility. I remember at the time when we first came up with DNA, there were paternity tests in particular where they said, ‘You don’t need DNA. You’ve got all these blood groups and they’re great. We can get to a point of being 99 per cent sure that man really is the father of a child in a paternity case.’ Well that’s not good enough. If you happen to be the one in a 100 where they get it wrong and you’re being falsely strapped for maintenance, year in year out. So there was a degree of resistence from the old blood grouping community. But that collapsed almost immediately. And that is a huge area of science that has gone completely extinct. It’s just vanished.

Has the use of DNA fingerprinting become even broader than even you expected?

Oh yes. In the way it has played out over the years. Obviously there have been big technological advances. The way we did it back in the mid-80s is Stone Age technology. Nobody would do it that way now. Today it is actually visually rather dull. You have a machine that gets the DNA and another machine that reads off a profile. So it’s basically hitting a button and seeing what happens.

But in terms of a range of applications, first of all on the human side you can extend all this out to not just forensics and paternity cases but whole issues of human origins. Where we’ve come from. A very good example of that would be the discovery a couple of years ago of King Richard III buried in a car park here in Leicester. DNA played a significant part in identifying those remains. By tying a certain type of DNA within the remains through to known living descendents of Richard III.

And that was a criminal investigation. This is a missing person case. 500 years old. Where one is using genealogy as a critical part of the investigative process. So the whole area of genealogy is really important.

The numbers impacted by this technology are huge?

Gigantic numbers. All I can say is the current estimate of how many people are now sitting in criminal DNA databases around the world is likely to be 50 million.

DNA testing is commonplace now and taken for granted, especially by younger generations. It’s even a staple of ITV’s Jeremy Kyle Show. Did you envisage that widespread use?

No. I never saw the impact being that broad. It is slightly sad that even within the forensic community you’re starting to see people losing the track of the history of this. 30 years is nothing in the grand scheme of things. This is a young technology that is still evolving very rapidly indeed.

It may be astonishing for people of a certain age, but Code of a Killer - set in the 1980s - is a period drama?

It is a period drama, yes. If you look at what we were doing then and the way that a forensic laboratory would do the corresponding analysis now, it would actually look very different. But the basic concepts haven’t changed one little bit. You target this DNA that are extremely variable between people and use those to individualise. That’s exactly what we’re doing now and what they did then.

Was there ever a hope of another ‘Eureka Moment’ in the rest of your career?

Most scientists would not get a moment like this. It is actually something very rare in science. To have a sudden blinding revelation which just opens up doors like this. To get that once in your career you count yourself very fortunate. To get it twice is just pure greed.

But I’ve done stuff before DNA fingerprinting and stuff after DNA fingerprinting which I’m equally proud of. These are fundamental scientific discoveries but nothing is ever going to rank along with DNA fingerprinting. Simply because of the social impact.

Code of a Killer is a recognition, first of all of fundamental curiosity-driven research that’s impacted on the world. So we must protect that type of investigation in universities.

And there are so many thousands upon thousands of people now engaged in forensic DNA analysis right around the world that I think this TV drama is a recognition for the whole community. Not just for me.

Source: ITV Press Centre

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