Born: 9 January 1950 (age 72) Oxford, Oxford shire, England
Sir Alec John Jeffreys, (born 9 January 1950) is a British geneticist who is best known for developing genetic fingerprinting and DNA profiling techniques that are now used in forensic science around the world to assist police investigative work and resolve paternity and immigration problems. He is a Professor of Genetics at the University of Leicester, and on November 26, 1992, he was made an honorary freeman of the City of Leicester. He was awarded in 1994 for his contributions to genetics.
Education and early life
Jeffreys was born into a middle-class family in Oxford, where he spent his first six years until moving to Luton, Bedfordshire, in 1956. He credits his father, as well as his paternal grandfather, who held multiple patents, for developing in him a sense of curiosity and invention. His father gave him a chemistry set when he was eight years old, which he expanded over the next few years with more chemicals, including a small bottle of sulphuric acid. He claims he enjoyed generating little explosions, but a burn from an unintentional splash of sulfuric acid left him with a permanent scar on his chin (now under his beard).
He also received a Victorian-era brass microscope from his father, which he used to examine biological specimens. He constructed a modest dissecting kit (with a scalpel made from a flattened pin) when he was about 12 and used it to dissect a bumblebee, but when he moved on to dissecting a larger animal, he got into conflict with his parents. While making his paper round one Sunday morning, he came across a dead cat on the road and carried it home in his bag. He claims he began dissecting it on the dining room table before Sunday lunch, causing a foul odor throughout the home when its intestines ruptured.
Jeffreys attended Luton Grammar School and subsequently Luton Sixth Form College as a student. He was awarded a four-year scholarship to Merton College, Oxford, where he earned first-class honors in biochemistry in 1971. As a doctoral student at the University of Oxford’s Genetics Laboratory, Jeffreys finished his Doctor of Philosophy degree on the mitochondria of cultivated mammalian cells.
Research and Career
He moved to the University of Amsterdam after finishing his doctorate, where he worked as a research fellow on mammalian genes, and then to the University of Leicester in 1977, where he discovered a method of showing differences between individuals’ DNA in 1984, inventing and developing genetic fingerprinting.
On September 10, 1984, Jeffreys says he had a “eureka moment” at his Leicester lab after looking at an X-ray film image of a DNA experiment that unexpectedly revealed both similarities and variances between the DNA of different members of his technician’s family. He stated that he discovered the potential scope of DNA fingerprinting, which uses variances in genetic information to identify individuals, after approximately half an hour. The technique has grown popular in forensic science to assist police detective work, as well as in resolving paternity and immigration disputes.
The approach can also be used to study non-human species, such as wildlife population genetics. His laboratory was the only place in the world that did DNA fingerprinting until his methods were commercialized in 1987, and as a result, it was extremely busy, receiving inquiries from all over the world. Jeffreys’ DNA technology was initially used in a disputed immigration issue in 1985 when he was asked to assist in confirming the identification of a British boy whose family was originally from Ghana. When the DNA findings showed that the boy was closely connected to the other members of the family, the matter was closed, and Jeffreys saw the mother’s relief when she heard the results.
Lynda Mann and Dawn Ashworth, both teenagers, were raped and killed in Narborough, Leicestershire, in 1983 and 1986, respectively. DNA fingerprinting was first employed in a police forensic test to identify the killer of two teenagers, Lynda Mann and Dawn Ashworth. After samples taken from him matched semen samples taken from the two murdered girls, Colin Pitchfork was identified and convicted of their murders. This proved to be a crucial identification, according to British police, who think that without it, an innocent man would have been convicted. In this case, Jeffreys’ work not only proved who the real perpetrator was, but it also exonerated Richard Buckland, who had been the main suspect and would have likely spent the rest of his life in prison.
The murders and subsequent solutions of the cases were portrayed in Episode 4 of the first season of the 1996 American TV series Medical Detectives, in which Jeffreys himself appears. In 2015, Code of a Killer, a new television miniseries based on these events, was released. In 1992, German prosecutors utilized Jeffreys’ methodology to authenticate the identity of Josef Mengele’s exhumed skeleton, which had died in 1979, by matching DNA from a femur bone with DNA from his mother and son, in a similar way to paternity testing.
Alec Jeffreys and his team created DNA profiling in 1985, based on typing individual extremely variable minisatellites in the human genome, with the term (DNA fingerprinting) being preserved for the initial test that types numerous minisatellites simultaneously. DNA profiling makes the approach more sensitive, reproducible, and adaptable to computer databases by focusing on only a few of these highly variable minisatellites. It soon became the standard for forensic DNA testing in criminal cases and paternity tests all around the world.
The invention of DNA amplification using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) opened up new approaches for forensic DNA testing, allowing for automation, increased sensitivity, and the use of alternative marker systems. Variable microsatellites, also known as short tandem repeats (STRs), are presently the most often utilized markers, which Jeffreys first used in the Mengele case in 1990. In the 1990s, a team of scientists led by Peter Gill at the Forensic Science Service enhanced STR profiling, allowing the UK National DNA Database (NDNAD) to be launched in 1995.
Modern DNA profiling can process hundreds of samples each day using highly automated and sophisticated technology. With the present method established for the NDNAD, sixteen microsatellites, plus a sex determination marker, a discriminating power of one in over a billion can be achieved. Anyone detained in England, Wales, or Northern Ireland is required by British law to have their DNA profile obtained and recorded on a database, whether or not they are convicted (different rules apply in Scotland). In 2020, the national database contained the DNA information of approximately 5.6 million people. Jeffreys has opposed the current use of DNA profiling, where the government has access to that database and has instead proposed a database of all people’s DNA, access to which would be controlled by an independent third party.
Before starting university, Jeffreys met his future wife, Sue Miles, in a youth club in the heart of Luton, Bedfordshire, and they married on August 28, 1971. Jeffreys has a brother and a sister, and he and his wife have two daughters, born in 1979 and 1983, respectively.
Awards and Honors
- In 1986, Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS)
- In 1989, Press, Radio, and Television awards for Midlander of the Year,
- In 1988, 1989, Appointed as a Royal Society Research Professor.
- On 26 November 1992, Honorary Freeman of the City of Leicester.
- In 1994, Knighted for services to genetics and science and technology.
- In 1995, Honorary member of the International Society for Forensic Genetics.
- In 1996, Albert Einstein World Award of Science.
- In 1998, Australia Prize.
- In 1999, Sir George Stokes Medal
- In 2004, an Honorary doctorate was awarded by the University of Leicester, where Jeffreys is a member of staff.
- In 2004, Louis-Jeantet Prize for Medicine.
- In 2005, Albert Lasker Award for Clinical Medical Research, jointly with Edwin Southern of the University of Oxford.
- In 2005, United States National Academy of Sciences, elected member.
- In 2006, the Great Briton Award for the Greatest Briton of the Year, winner in the category of Science and Innovation, as well as the overall winner. Dr. A.H. Heineken Prize for Biochemistry and Biophysics, 2006.
- Honorary degree from King’s College London, March 8, 2007.
- Graham Medal of the Glasgow Philosophical Society, January 23, 2008.
- On 16 November 2009, Awarded the Honorary Doctor of Science by the University of Huddersfield for his presentation “DNA Profiling; Past, Present, and Future,” which was nominated as the Graham Lecture.
- On 14 April 2010, Received the Edinburgh Medal
- In April 2010, Officially opened the new Soar Valley College building in Leicester
- 21 February 2011 – Received the ABRF Annual Award
- In 2012 Officially opened the Sir Alec Jeffreys Building in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, the scientific support building for West Yorkshire Police and the wider Yorkshire and the Humber region.
- In 2014, Copley Medal
- On 22 January 2014, I Honorary Doctor of Science Degree from De Montfort University.
- In 2017, Companion of Honour