Prize for an 'original guy' is 'long overdue'

September 9, 2005

Ed Southern's great discovery may have been a simple one, but it opened the door to the detailed analysis of genetics that scientists now take for granted, writes Anna Fazackerley.

Adrian Bird, professor of genetics at Edinburgh University, remembers:

"Before his Southern blot paper was published [in 1975], Ed was circulating the protocol to people who had heard about it and they were slapping their heads and saying, 'Gosh, this is just what I needed.'"

Southern blotting - a technique that has made such a wide impact that it is listed in the Oxford English Dictionary - allows scientists to isolate and study one fragment within the complicated mass of a DNA strand.

Scientists say that this technique has had a huge impact. It made proper study of genes, including those for globin and insulin, possible for the first time, as well as antenatal diagnosis. The discovery of "split genes", which won a Nobel prize in 1993, would have been impossible without Professor Southern's blotting method, as would Sir Alec Jeffreys's breakthrough on DNA fingerprinting.

"He's an original guy," Professor Bird says. "He disappears from view in a mass of plastics and wires and solutions and reappears months later with an important insight. This prize is overdue."

Terry Rabbitts, from the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, said: "Ed's contribution to science has definitely been methods. Over the years he has made some important leaps. If he had a genomic problem, he went away and worked out what method he needed to solve it."

He added: "He's a really nice chap as well, so that makes it doubly good that he has won this prize. Most of the stuff he did in the lab himself - he didn't have flunkies, you know."

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