Close to 'ideal of a pure scientist'

September 9, 2005

As winners of the Lasker research prize celebrate, can they look forward to a Nobel?

One might expect the father of DNA fingerprinting - a technique that has convicted murderers and rapists, pinpointed wayward fathers in paternity suits and touched millions of lives - to have taken a chair at Oxbridge long ago. But Sir Alec Jeffreys remains firmly embedded at Leicester University, where he has been since 1977.

Rhona Borts, a professor in his department, explains: "He's fought off all attempts to leave the bench. He's an unpretentious person so I doubt the glory of Oxbridge would have any appeal."

She adds: "We all love him. So many people are just waiting for him to win a Nobel."

Such affection is not unusual. At a public ceremony last year, Stuart Petersen, head of medical and social care education at Leicester, said Sir Alec was "as close to the ideal of a pure scientist as it is possible to get".

Alan Malcolm, chief executive of the Institute of Biology, taught him at Oxford University. "It was obvious even at the age of 19 that he was a hugely intelligent undergraduate - even by Oxford standards," he said.

The Lasker prize is not the first recognition of Sir Alec's achievements.

He was elected fellow of the Royal Society at the age of 36 - most have to wait until their fifties - and knighted in 1994.

The discovery in September 1984 of variations in DNA that are unique to each individual was something of an accident. Sir Alec had been working on the basic science of disease genes, and a technique for solving crime was far from his mind.

Kay Davies, head of the department of human anatomy and genetics at Oxford, recalls being on a bus with him at about this time. "It was still confidential but Alec was so excited - he knew immediately the implications of his discovery and went on to prove it," she said, adding: "I cannot think of anyone more deserving of the Lasker prize, and perhaps even a Nobel prize in the future."

But David Summers, head of the genetics department at Cambridge University stresses that the value of Jeffreys's discovery goes beyond criminals and paternity suits. "It is about trying to get some unique identification of a genome - that could be a bacterial species," he says. "He has introduced a vital concept that has spread throughout the whole of modern biology."

anna.fazackerley@thes.co.uk

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