Inventor of DNA fingerprinting sees funny side of it

July 6th, 2008 - 10:02 am ICT by IANS  

By Jaideep Sarin
Helsinki (Finland), July 6 (IANS) The scientist who invented DNA fingerprinting in 1984 can’t help but see the lighter side of the technology and says it has acquired an entertainment angle now, given the high-profile cases it is used for. Sir Alec Jeffreys of the Department of Genetics at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom says he himself has handled some of the highly publicised cases which were nothing sort of entertainment for millions of people across the globe.

He developed the first-ever DNA fingerprint Sep 10, 1984, at his laboratory, enabling criminal trials and immigration and paternity disputes to be resolved scientifically.

A prominent one among the cases Jeffreys dealt with himself was the examination of Monica Lewinsky’s dress in the controversy surrounding the then US president Bill Clinton’s affair with the White House intern.

He also handled the double murder case in which former American footballer and actor O.J. Simpson was the suspect and confirmation of the man caught from an underground hole bunker in Iraq as the actual Saddam Hussein.

“The O.J. Simpson double murder case, telecast live in the US and other parts of the world, became home entertainment for millions. Even though DNA fingerprinting is a serious matter, the entertainment angle has crept into some cases,” Jeffreys told IANS here.

The British scientist, knighted by the Queen in 1994 for his pioneering work in the field of genetics, was one of the six top innovator-scientists who were selected for the 1.15 million euro Millennium Technology Prize 2008 given here last month.

When it comes to seeing the funny side of things, the jovial Jeffreys does not spare even his own forefathers.

At a lecture here, he said his invention had proved that despite having the same lineage and surname, his family DNA did not match with his famous 17th century forefather, Judge Jeffreys - known as the hanging judge in England for sending over 200 persons to the gallows in one go.

“That meant that one of the women in our family was not faithful! I have not gone into the details,” Jeffreys laughed it off.

Jeffreys, has even handled what is believed to be the DNA sample of terror group Al Qaeda’s chief Osama bin Laden.

He says the most arduous work that DNA fingerprinting scientists like him have handled was to identify people from the 25,000-odd body parts recovered from the site of the 9/11 World Trade Centre (WTC) buildings collapse.

“It was real hard work to identify people from those body parts. Victims of the Asian tsunami were also identified using the technique,” Jeffreys pointed out.

The scientist says he derives satisfaction from his innovation not from the fact that it helps in global criminal investigation, solving immigration cases and even resolving paternity and family disputes but because in several cases the innocence of individuals has been proved using his technique.

“In several cases, DNA fingerprinting has helped people in proving their innocence in crimes that they were accused of. That is quite satisfying,” he pointed out.

Jeffreys says several countries now have a global database of over 12 million criminals, making crime investigation a lot simpler.

“The biggest database of 5.5 million is with the US followed by the UK, Germany and Austria. In Britain, every arrested person is put on the national database even though this has raised ethical issues,” he pointed out.

(Jaideep Sarin can be contacted at

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