by Kathryn Hadley
The technique of genetic fingerprinting was discovered 25 years ago today, on September 10th 1984, by Alec Jeffreys’ from the Department of Genetics at the University of Leicester. To mark the anniversary, the University of Leicester have created an anniversary website featuring interviews and information about Sir Alec’s life and work.
Sir Alec described the discovery in an interview published on the new website:
‘My life changed on Monday morning at 9.05 am, 10 September 1984. What emerged was the world's first genetic fingerprint. In science it is unusual to have such a 'eureka' moment. We were getting extraordinarily variable patterns of DNA,
including from our technician and her mother and father, as well as from non
human samples. My first reaction to the results was 'this is too complicated',
and then the penny dropped and I realised we had genetic fingerprinting.’
Genetic fingerprinting has since been applied to crime, paternity and immigration disputes. In the UK there now exists a national database of over 5 million genetic profiles and the number of recorded profiles has risen by 40% over the past two years. According to an article published on the website of the BBC, over 17,600 offences were solved last year using a DNA match, including 83 killings and 184 rapes.
The University of Leicester website has reprinted a lecture delivered by Sir Alec Jeffreys at the Leicester Medical Society Bicentenary during which he outlined the history of human genetics. Genetics is defined as the study of heredity and the variation of inherited characteristics. He cited two key individuals. In 1900, the Austrian physician Karl Landsteiner discovered the ABO blood group system. This was the first example of a variable human characteristic to be discovered that was inherited according to the simple rules of Mendel. Gregor Johann Mendel (1822-1884) was an Austrian priest and scientist who discovered the basic principles of heredity based on his work with pea plants. Two years later, the English physician Sir Archibald Garrod, who was working at St Bartholomew's Hospital in London on the inherited disorder Alkaptonuria, discovered the first example of a human inherited disease.
The 1950s saw the rise of genomics, the study of the organisation of genes and chromosomes and structure of DNA. The first human gene was isolated in 1977 and today we now have the final draft of the entire human genome sequence.
On the anniversary of the discovery of DNA fingerprinting, Sir Alec Jeffreys called for changes to the laws governing DNA databases. In England and Wales the DNA profiles of people who have never been convicted are kept alongside those of convicted criminals. In the article published on the BBC website, Jeffreys argued:
‘Innocent people do not belong on that database. Branding them as future
criminals is not proportionate response in the fight against crime. And I've met
a fair number of these people and some of these people are very, very upset and
are distressed by the fact that their DNA is on that database. They cannot get
it off and they feel as if they're branded as criminals.’
For further information, visit www2.le.ac.uk
For further information on the 20th-century scientific-technical revolution and how it produced a new world culture and global organisation, read our article The 20th-Century Scientific-Technical Revolution