It’s been 30 years since Sir Alec Jeffreys discovered DNA Fingerprinting, sparking a revolution in the way we use DNA evidence.
DNA Fingerprinting changed the world there is no doubting that. From determining the paternity of a child to solving criminal cases, DNA fingerprinting has become ingrained into modern society.
It was exactly thirty years ago, Sir Alec Jeffreys was working in his laboratory at the University of Leicester when he discovered DNA fingerprinting on 10 September 1984.
Within months he was helping to solve immigration and paternity cases.
DNA fingerprinting has revolutionised the way crime investigations are carried out and has been key in helping to establish guilt or innocence in many cases.
“It was a real eureka moment. Thirty seconds which literally changed my life,” says Sir Alec.
“It was really exciting, and we did it so quickly,” adds Sir Alec. “We went from a basic discovery and the world’s first horrible messy, smudgy DNA fingerprint to something of real practical utility. From first discovery in September 1984 to the first case in April 1985, it was less than half-a-year later. It was unbelievably quick in scientific terms!”
The first case was an immigration case and resulted in the DNA evidence appearing in a tribunal and they dropped the case. Our DNA science had beaten bureaucracy and reunited a little boy with his family.”
DNA fingerprinting was soon solving not only immigration cases but also paternity disputes, and serious criminal cases such as murder and rape.
“It was all so quick, but at the start we really didn’t know if anyone would take any notice. The one sensible thing I did was to call it DNA Fingerprinting. Technically, the more appropriate name would have been ‘idiosyncratic mini satellite southern blot hybridisation profiling.’ If we’d have called it that, it would have killed it dead in the water. No one would have understood it. But calling it DNA Fingerprinting got the message over. Brand is everything,” says Sir Alec.
Today there are countless stories of DNA evidence either proving a person’s guilt or innocence, but DNA evidence is not enough on its own – as Sir Alec says, DNA “has context.”
DNA says nothing about guilt or innocence. It only seeks to establish whether sample A came from person B, or not. It can do that with exquisite accuracy. But it’s up to the court to decide innocence or guilt on all the evidence, not simply on DNA.”
Sir Alec Jeffreys is in no doubt about the technology’s impact over the past 30 years.
“How many people worldwide have had their lives touched by DNA testing?” asks Sir Alec. “If we start at around 50 million and work up rapidly from there you get some scale of the impact, and every application is a human drama. So there are 50 million stories to be told out there.”
Now DNA testing has entered mainstream culture and such shows like the Jeremy Kyle show exploits DNA paternity testing to show the human drama behind people’s lives and settle disputes on TV.
Recently TV soap operas such as EastEnders and Coronation Street have incorporated DNA testing into their story lines which has informed millions of people of the benefits of DNA testing.