Friday, September 11, 2009


Yesterday was the 25th anniversary of the discovery of genetic fingerprinting. Despite the success of such shows as CSI, it was a British discovery. Alec Jeffreys had a "eureka moment" in his lab in Leicester after looking at the X-ray film image of a DNA experiment at 9:05 am on Monday 10 September 1984, which unexpectedly showed both similarities and differences in his technician's family's DNA. Within about half an hour, he realized the possible scope of DNA fingerprinting, which uses variations in the genetic code to identify individuals.

DNA fingerprinting was first used as a police forensic test to identify the rapist and killer of two teenagers, Lynda Mann and Dawn Ashworth, who were both murdered in Narborough, Leicestershire, in 1983 and 1986 respectively. Colin Pitchfork was identified and convicted of murder after samples taken from him matched semen samples taken from the two dead girls. In this case the chief suspect was eliminated and unsuspected Colin was pitchforked into the mire.

Alec Jeffreys is against the current British practice of including everybody on the database who has been arrested for a crime even if they have never been convicted. But then he was a hippie in his youth. You can see why the police want to keep all suspects on the database - often they are sure who did it, but they can't produce the evidence to substantiate their case. I am convinced that my every move is watched by a higher authority, so I shouldn't mind in the least having my DNA on a database.

Despite winning multiple prizes for his discoveries Jeffreys has yet to be enNobeled. Britain has a remarkable record in winning Nobel prizes with 117 awards (compared to America's 309 and Germany's 102). Of course America has a population of 307 million compared with the UK's 61 million and Germany's 82 million. Switzerland and Sweden have the best record at picking up Nobels per head of population; the Swiss with 3.57 per million and the Swedes with 3.11. Denmark is not far behind with 2.36. By the end of the century I would expect China and India to rank high on the list.

To revert to the British prizes; Among the discoveries of importance were monoclonal antibodies, antibiotics, DNA sequencing, protein structure, CT scanning, the structure of DNA, stem cells, MRI, the human genome sequence, beta blockers and H2 antagonists, NSAIDs, Pulsars, the structure of antibody molecules and the basis of organ transplantation.

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