Posted by: kenwbudd | September 30, 2009

Alec Jeffreys: The Father of the DNA Evidence warns of Database usage

It’s 25 years since Alec Jeffreys made the accidental discovery of the first DNA fingerprint, which transformed forensics – and his life.

The first DNA “fingerprint” was a murky pattern on X-ray film. Did you realise the potential of what you had stumbled upon?

On that Monday morning 25 years ago I remember putting the light on, looking at the patterns and thinking “what a horrible mess”. Then the penny dropped. We realised the potential for DNA identification within about a minute and then the possible applications came flooding in. By evening we had a pretty good shopping list of the stuff that DNA could, theoretically, be applied to.

DNA fingerprinting has enabled so much, from solving crimes and paternity disputes to freeing innocent prisoners from death row. Is there one story that stands out for you?

The first case we ever did. It was an immigration dispute involving a young lad threatened with deportation from the UK. We did a DNA test, showed he was a full member of his family, and the immigration tribunal dropped the case. I was there when his mother was told. That was the magic moment for me, when I saw the science move into a very different realm.

DNA databases attract controversy, especially in the UK where DNA profiles gathered by police are retained regardless of guilt. How should we deal with that?

Databases should be governed through proper legislation that prohibits the taking and retention of entirely innocent people’s DNA. That’s a major violation of the Human Rights Act.

Is it really such a problem to be on a database?

Having your DNA on a database – to be branded the same as a criminal – is painful for a considerable number of people. And I’ve not heard those people have a voice in this debate.

What are the biggest issues for DNA technology in the future?

Not so far down the track, you’ll be able to send a mouth swab off and get a complete genome sequence back – all 3000 million bases. Then there will be a million-and-one issues. Who stores the data? Who owns it? The idea that I can plough around my genome willy-nilly finding out fun things about me – that could have a very big impact on family members too. Because my genome is mine, but really it’s not – I share it.

What mind-boggling future applications of DNA sequencing do you foresee?

The idea of finding out someone’s surname from their DNA might sound completely bonkers, but it’s not. Also miniaturisation: getting a lab-on-a-chip you can take out to a crime scene. But the Holy Grail for the field is to get instant DNA typing, to get it in 1 second flat. Then you have DNA entering the world of real-time security.

What does that mean in practice?

Imagine going to the supermarket 20 years from now. To use your credit card, you don’t have a PIN that everyone can see. Instead, you spit on something, and there’s a little DNA detector that says “yeah, that’s right”. And away you go.

Alec Jeffreys is a geneticist at the University of Leicester, UK. In 1984 he invented genetic fingerprinting, which identifies individuals based on their DNA. He was knighted in 1994


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