Genetic Fingerprinting


Eighteenth Annual Darwin College Lecture Series 2003

Lecture 1   :   17 January 2003

Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys
Department of Genetics, University of Leicester


DNA fingerprinting, accidentally invented in 1984, has had a major impact on many areas of biology, most notably in forensic and legal medicine. I will describe how DNA typing can be used to solve casework and will review the latest developments, including the creation of major national DNA databases that are already proving extraordinarily effective in the fight against crime. I will discuss how this work also led to the discovery of some of the most unstable regions of human DNA, and how these can be used to study human evolution in real time and to explore the effects of environmental exposure to agents such as radiation on heritable mutations in human DNA.


Alec Jeffreys is the Royal Society Wolfson Research Professor at the University of Leicester. He was first introduced to science at the tender age of 8, when his father presented him with a chemistry set and microscope. Having survived a series of youthful and hazardous experiments, he went on to study Biochemistry and Genetics at the University of Oxford. Following two years of postdoctoral research at the University of Amsterdam with Dick Flavell FRS, he joined the Department of Genetics at Leicester in 1977.

Sir Alec is best known for his development of genetic fingerprinting in 1984 and his subsequent demonstration that it could provide a completely new and very powerful approach to biological identification. Within months, he had successfully resolved his first immigration dispute, and rapidly went on to show that the technology could also be applied to paternity cases and to the world's first murder case investigated using DNA. He also showed that genetic fingerprinting could be applied to non-human species, with major implications for ecology and conservation biology.

In addition to genetic fingerprinting, Sir Alec also continues an active research programme into human genome organisation and variability that now spans 25 years. He was one of the first to develop methods for detecting human genes, and used this to provide one of the first examples of split genes. In 1979, he showed how inherited variation in humans could be detected directly in DNA, work that led to the development of genetic fingerprinting. More recently, his work has focused on understanding patterns of DNA diversity in humans, and in particular on developing new methods for detecting heritable changes in human DNA, occurring by mutation or recombination, to see how genome instability drives genome variation. This work is revealing major new insights into heritable instability in the human genome, and is providing new approaches to detecting environmental factors, for example ionising radiation, that can influence heritable changes in DNA. Sir Alec remains an active experimentalist and very much a "hands-on" scientist.

Sir Alec has received many awards and distinctions for his work, including a Knighthood for Services to Genetics, a Fellowship of the Royal Society, the Albert Einstein World of Science Award for 1996 and the Australia Prize. He has also received recognition outside the scientific community, being voted "Midlander of the Year" for 1989 and being made an Honorary Freeman of the City of Leicester in 1993.

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