Apr 232013

The Wellcome Library has launched a major new digital resource which tells the story of genetics. ‘Codebreakers: Making of Modern Genetics’  contains the digitised archives of the most prominent individuals in this field, together with lots of supporting material.

To celebrate the launch of ‘Codebreakers’ we would like to show you a special selection of MediaHub resources which help illustrate the huge impact the work of these geneticists has had on society and how it has already changed our lives.

It is sixty years since’ Nature’ published  Watson and Crick’s  paper on the structure of DNA. This breakthrough is considered to be one of the greatest achievements of the 20th Century. Since that time enormous progress has been made in the field of genetics and molecular biology.

Francis Crick : Nobel Prize-Winning Scientist
Getty (still images) : 23-04-1993

Legendary Geneticist : James Dewey Watson
Getty (still images) 23-04-1993

Genetic Fingerprinting

Alec Jeffreys discovered the technique of DNA fingerprinting by chance while carrying out research at the University of Leicester in 1984. It revolutionised the field of forensic science and police were now able to use DNA evidence to link  a suspect to the scene of a crime. A few years later the technique had been developed sufficiently to make it commercially available. Click on the following ITV news clip to hear how DNA fingerprinting is carried out and the impact it was to have on criminal investigation procedures.

Genetic Fingerprint Techniques
ITV News 13-11-1987

Jeffreys went on to refine the process further and developed DNA profiling, a technique which made it possible for DNA databases to be established. This has led to ethical questions about whose DNA should be stored and for how long.

However, the use of DNA evidence in court is not without its issues. In 2007 attempts to convict an individual for the Omagh bombings failed due to problems with ‘Low Copy’ DNA that ‘did not stand up to scrutiny’. Watch the ITN news clip below to find out more about the implications this has had for the Crown Prosecution Service.

DNA evidence to be reviewed after Omagh bomb trial verdict
ITN 21-12-2007

Sequencing and Mapping of the Human Genome

The Human Genome Project, established in 1989,  allowed geneticists to work collaboratively on sequencing  the entire human genome. This involved identifying every chemical  base pair within every gene of each human chromosome (around 3 billion base pairs).

Base pairs which make up the structure of a DNA double helix
Book of Life : Wellcome Film 2001

The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, based in Cambridge, carried out nearly a third of the work; the rest was sequenced by institutions  in the USA .  The ‘Book of Life‘ was made by the Wellcome Trust and is a fascinating account of how the sequencing work was done and the immense potential this has released to understand how genes contribute to human disease. We now have the information to discover the genetic basis of  cancer, diabetes and heart disease, as well as many other illnesses such as Alzheimer’s. Find out more about how the work was done by clicking on the image below:

Publication of the entire human genome
Book of Life : Wellcome Film 2001

This immense task was completed to a high degree of accuracy by 2003;  timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the discovery of  the DNA double helix.

Frederick Sanger, the researcher after whom the Sanger Institute was named,  pioneered methods of  sequencing  DNA which would form the basis of the high-speed technologies in use today. In the interview below you can hear this modest man discuss his work and how the life of a research scientist is usually strewn with failures from which occasional breakthroughs are made.

Frederick Sanger
Sanger. Sequences [Dr F. Sanger Interviewed by Mr H. Judson, 13 November 1987] Biochemical Society

The process of DNA sequencing is constantly advancing and becoming cheaper. In 2007 it cost $10 million to sequence a human genome whereas in 2012 it could be done in one day for around $1,000. This is having a revolutionary effect on  scientists’ abilities  to defeat diseases which mutate quickly, such as HIV and malaria, as well as for a multitude of other applications.

Many more genomes of other species are now being unravelled, expanding our knowledge of genetics further. Accompanying these advances will be a host of new ethical issues surrounding the use to which this information is being put and whether it is being used for commercial gain.

Greenpeace activists protest against genetically modified maize crops grown by US company, Monsanto.
Getty (images) 03-05-2005

Giant biotechnology companies such as Monsanto have been accused of introducing genetically modified organisms to the detriment of indigenous species and the environmental health of the planet.

The Genome of Neanderthal Man

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology are trying to sequence the Neanderthal genome following the discovery of ancient DNA within well preserved Neanderthal bones . It will allow scientists to compare human and Neanderthal genomes and identify the changes which are unique to modern man. It is hoped this will give clues to how man evolved and why Neanderthals disappeared.  Watch this Channel 4 Newsclip below to find out why scientists think this work could also contribute to our understanding of human speech disorders.

Neanderthal Skull
Technology: Scientists close to mapping genetic code for Neanderthal man: Channel 4 News 15-11-2006

We now stand on the threshold of a new age in which biomedical technologies will be used diagnose and treat disease, design new drugs and provide us with solutions to help make vital resources more plentiful. This promises to improve all our lives but, as with the advent of all new technologies, we will have to confront previously unknown ethical dilemmas along the way.

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