DNA fingerprinting inventor says people initially laughed when he described potential uses of his discovery

Posted by ap507 at Sep 10, 2014 12:04 AM |
Reflections from Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys on the 30th anniversary of the discovery of genetic fingerprinting at the University of Leicester

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 10 September 2014 

Professor Jeffreys will be available for interview on Wednesday 10 September at the Department of Genetics, Adrian Building, University of Leicester. Please be on location before 11am. Contact er134@le.ac.uk to confirm attendance and arrange car parking permits

The full interview with Professor Jeffreys is available to download and embed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EGMg6i8nUxI

Sir Alec says:

  • Discovery of DNA fingerprinting was a ‘glorious accident’ – it was a moment that changed my life
  • When I first gave a talk on the applications of DNA fingerprinting- people fell about laughing. They thought I had lost my marbles
  • Handling samples from the first murder case was a chilling moment
  • Without the academic freedom I enjoyed at Leicester- I don’t think DNA fingerprinting would have been discovered
  • My wife, Sue, spotted the first practical application of DNA fingerprinting
  • As science gets bigger and more corporate- there is a risk that we may lose that childish innocence of enquiring about the world.

The inventor of DNA fingerprinting at the University of Leicester exactly 30 years ago today – 10 September, 1984 – has recalled his ‘Eureka’ moment.

In an interview with the University of Leicester’s news and creative services team released especially to mark the anniversary, Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys recalls how he and his technician made a list of all the possible applications of the discovery- but it was his wife, Sue, who spotted the potential for resolving immigration disputes which in fact proved to be the world’s first application of genetic fingerprinting.

In the 30-minute plus interview, Sir Alec recalls his early interest in science and the time he first came to Leicester – including being turned away from a hotel  because of his unkempt appearance.

Speaking of the landmark moment in 1984, he says: “The discovery of DNA fingerprinting was a glorious accident. It was best summarised in a school project that a grandson of mine did years ago: ‘DNA fingerprinting was discovered by my granddad when he was messing about in the lab’. Actually, you can’t describe it better than that – that is exactly what we were doing.”

He describes how he was ‘completely wrong’  in thinking that DNA fingerprinting would be a weapon of last resort to be used when everything else had failed.  In fact, the search for DNA evidence has become one of the first things done in the search for evidence at a crime scene.

He recalls his work in various applications of DNA fingerprinting, including the identification of the remains of notorious war criminal, the ‘Angel of Death’ Josef Mengele, and in determining whether Dolly the sheep really was a clone.

He describes the academic freedom he enjoyed at Leicester which led him to stay at the University for over 35 years.  “Without that freedom- I don’t think DNA fingerprinting would ever have emerged.  It was a great place and I stayed here ever since,” he says.

He comments on the nature of science funding and ‘future impact statements’ required as part of the funding regime.  Recalling the case of DNA fingerprinting in the 80s, he said that before his discovery, people would have regarded it a ‘complete hokum’ that DNA could be used in forensic work.

“When I first gave a talk on DNA fingerprinting and said it could be used to catch rapists, people just fell about laughing- they thought I had lost my marbles.

“You’ve got to leave space for the unexpected in research and then have the mechanisms in place for the unexpected to be translated into something useful,” he says.

Talking about the way research is conducted now, he comments on the need for big research groups to conduct vital science like the human genome project, advancing knowledge through interdisciplinarity.  But he adds that some of the big discoveries in science came from individuals or very small groups.

“I like to think about how far the greats of science would have gone in this modern, highly corporate, impact-driven model of science.  Poor old Isaac Newton I think would have struggled – did he have research consortium besides him? No- he was a notoriously single-minded person.

“Charles Darwin- he and his buddies on the boat, Beagle, came up with a total transformation of our understanding of life itself. Alexander Fleming and his discovery of penicillin- again that was a very small group.

“So if you look at the traditional big discoveries, they all came from very small groups. -all characterised by people with burning curiosity about the world around them.  I think there is an argument to be made that as things become bigger and more corporate, then maybe that childish innocence in the way of enquiring about the world we live in gets lost.  I think that’s a sad thing.”

He reiterates his concern about the world’s DNA databases and whose data is put on them.  He describes how there needs to be a balance between the state’s rights to solve crime and an individual’s right to genetic privacy.   “I take the very simple view that my genome is my own and nobody may access it unless with my permission.”

You can access the full interview here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EGMg6i8nUxI


Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys Interview 1986: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yfGMyhmsbP0

Listen to a podcast interview with Sir Alec here: http://www2.le.ac.uk/about/stories/dna

Access more background information here: http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/genetics/jeffreys/jeffreys



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