Eureka Moment for DNA Fingerprinting
It is not often that scientific breakthroughs can have such a precise time associated with them, but with DNA fingerprinting we know that Alec Jeffreys suddenly realised the wider potential of identifying variations in our unique genetic codes at 9.05am on Monday September 10 1984. He was in his laboratory at the University of Leicester looking at X-ray images of the DNA make-up of several members of his technician’s family, and noted their similarities and their differences. A train of thought began that within half-an-hour had led him to see how useful the information could be in very practical terms.
Initially the test was used in paternity and immigration cases, as indeed it still is, but the most celebrated use has been in solving crimes – though the tests take rather longer than CSI shows would have us believe. The very first case where the technique was employed proved a news sensation, and showed the world how effective it was in obtaining justice. Two girls had been raped and murdered in Narborough, the first in 1983 the second in 1986. The then usual scientific tests pointed towards a local youth named Richard Buckland, whose blood type and enzyme profile matched the evidence from the bodies: he confessed under questioning, but when Jeffreys conducted full DNA testing on semen samples – thanks to extraction techniques developed by the Forensic Science Service – he conclusively demonstrated that Buckland could not have been the rapist.
DNA tests were carried out on 5000 men from the area, without any positive matches, but it transpired that someone had taken a test for someone else, Colin Pitchfork a local baker. Pitchfork was arrested, tested, and confessed to the crimes, of which he was subsequently found guilty. He was given a life sentence after his trial in 1988.
Jeffreys has been greatly lauded for his work: he became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1986, was knighted in 1994, and was awarded the Royal Society of Chemists’ Stokes Medal in 1999.