Monday, August 4, 2014

DNA fingerprinting pioneer honoured

The inventor of genetic fingerprinting has been awarded the world's oldest science prize, the Royal Society's Copley Medal.

In 1984, Prof Sir Alec Jeffreys stumbled on a method for distinguishing individuals based on their DNA.

It was a discovery that went on to transform forensic science and resolve questions of identity and kinship.

He receives the medal 'for his pioneering work on variation and mutation in the human genome'.

Prof Jeffreys said he was 'thrilled' by the honour.

'I am particularly delighted that the award recognises our work extending over three decades into exploring DNA diversity and the processes that generate this variation, and not just our accidental foray into forensic DNA.'

That accidental foray came about almost exactly 30 years ago, when he was comparing the X-ray images that resulted from processing the DNA of one of his lab technicians, alongside her mother and father.

'My first reaction to the results was 'this is too complicated', and then the penny dropped and I realised we had genetic fingerprinting,' Prof Jeffreys has said of the original finding.

In 1985, the method was used to settle an immigration dispute, which was followed by a paternity case and numerous others. Before the technique was commercialised in 1987, all tests were run in Prof Jeffreys' own lab at the University of Leicester.

He and his team developed an improved technique specifically for forensic applications, which has since been developed even further.

In subsequent years, Prof Jeffreys made numerous discoveries relating to the way our DNA mutates and rearranges.

Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society, said the award to Prof Jeffreys was 'great news'.

'Since discovering genetic fingerprinting back in 1984, Sir Alec's work has transformed our understanding of human genetics.'

The Copley Medal was first awarded in 1731 and its 273 previous recipients include Albert Einstein, Francis Crick and Stephen Hawking. It alternates between physical science in odd years and biological science in even years.

In 2013 it was awarded to the Nobel-winning physicist Prof Sir Andre Geim, one of the pioneers of research into graphene.

Dorothy Hodgkin received the medal in 1976 and remains its only female winner.