Famous Scientist in Genetic Research – Sir Alec Jeffreys

Alec Jeffreys (Image from Wikimedia Commons)British geneticist, Sir Alec Jeffreys, is a famous scientist in genetic research because he is the man who invented DNA fingerprinting technology. This technology has changed Sir Jeffreys’ life as a scientist and revolutionized forensic science. This article gives you an overview of Sir Alec Jeffreys’ personal life, education, career, awards, and important contributions to genetic research.

Personal Life

Sir Alec Jeffreys was born on January 9, 1950 in Oxford, Oxfordshire, England. He has one brother and one sister in a middle-class family. His first experience in scientific experimentation began when he was eight years old, when his father gave him a large chemistry set which he used to perform simple chemical reactions. He enjoyed making explosions using sulfuric acid but one time an accidental splash of the acid caused burn and permanent scar on his chin which is now covered by his beard.

His father also gave him a Victorian brass microscope which he used to study various biological specimens. This activity might have ignited his interest in biology. He has also dissected bumblebee and a dead cat which he found along the road in his way home. He got into trouble with his parents when the foul smell coming from the cat’s intestine scattered throughout the house. He should not have dissected the cat in their dining table because it was disgusting to his parents.

Sir Jeffreys was married to Miss Sue in 1971. They have two daughters who were very young at the peak of Sir Jeffreys’ career: discovery of DNA fingerprinting in the mid-1980s.


  • First-class honors degree in biochemistry from Merton College, Oxford in 1972
  • Ph.D. degree from Oxford University in 1975

Research Career

After receiving his Ph.D. degree in 1975, Dr. Jeffreys moved to the University of Amsterdam and worked with Dr. Dick Flavell as a postdoctoral fellow. The two geneticists and other researchers tried to clone a mammalian single-copy gene. They did not succeed but they managed to develop the Southern blot hybridization technique, an important procedure in molecular biology research. The team also discovered one of the first examples of introns, non coding sections of the DNA.

In 1977, Sir Jeffreys decided to leave University of Amsterdam and moved to the University of Leicester. He did not continue what he has started in Dr. Flavell’s laboratory on mammalian genetics but instead changed his research direction to DNA variation and evolution of gene families. His laboratory was searching on sections of the DNA that are highly variable among humans.

Sir Jeffreys’ laboratory has identified the first “hypervariable” regions of the human DNA; these regions consist of short tandem sequences repeated a number of times which became known as minisatellites. These minisatellites are highly variable to humans in terms of the number of repeats. Sir Jeffreys’ has developed a technique in detecting many minisatellites simultaneously. This technique has led him to his discovery of DNA fingerprinting.

Sir Jeffreys is currently a full Professor of Genetics at the University of Leicester and still very active in research. His laboratory is researching on biological forces that contribute to human variation such as mutation and genetic recombination.


Important Contribution to Genetic Research

In an experiment, Jeffreys used his technique to detect minisatellites in DNA samples taken from his laboratory technician’s family. When he looked at the result of his experiment at 9:05 am on Monday 10th of September 1984, he saw in the photographic plate a clear pattern of inheritance among the members of his technician’s family. He saw both the differences and similarities in their DNA. It was a “eureka” moment for Sir Jeffreys’ life. He soon realized the potential of his discovery in identifying individuals using DNA.

Sir Jeffreys called his DNA typing technique “DNA fingerprinting”, a less complicated term compared to the traditional terms given to new techniques. DNA fingerprinting has made Sir Alec Jeffreys as a famous scientist in genetic research because of its various applications.

DNA fingerprinting has been used to resolve thousands of immigration and paternity disputes. Many rapists and murderers have been convicted using DNA samples as evidence. Many innocent people sentenced with death and imprisonment have also been freed with the help of DNA fingerprinting.

Awards and Recognitions

Below are some of the awards and recognitions given to Sir Alec Jeffreys for his valuable contribution to science. Indeed, Sir Jeffreys is one of the famous scientists in genetic research.

  • 1986 – Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS)
  • 1991 – Appointed Royal Society Research Professor
  • 1992 – Honorary freeman of the City of Leicester
  • 1994 – Knighted
  • 1996 – Albert Einstein World Award of Science
  • Honorary doctorates awarded by different universities.
  • Prizes and Medals from recognized institutions and foundations

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