35 years of DNA fingerprinting: an overview of broadcast media

On the 7th March 1985 a research paper Hypervariable ‘minisatellite’ regions in human DNA by Alec Jeffreys, Victoria Wilson and Swee Lay Thein was published in the scientific journal Nature.


Although the relatively unassuming title might not have immediately caught the attention of some readers, it is clear from the summary of the article that the authors were acutely aware of its potential significance. “A probe based on a tandem-repeat of the core sequence can detect many highly variable loci simultaneously” they wrote “and can provide an individual-specific DNA ‘fingerprint’ of general use in human genetic analysis.”

DNA2A second paper by the same authors, also in Nature, followed in July of that year. This time the title Individual-specific ‘fingerprints’ of human DNA demonstrated that the notion of Genetic Fingerprinting was front and centre.

The first uses of DNA fingerprinting were not in the kinds of criminal cases with which it is now most popularly associated, but rather with immigration and paternity cases in which family relationships were being disputed. The first use in a criminal case occurred in 1986, when the technique was used to exonerate a man who had falsely confessed to a murder committed locally. The following year, the real culprit was identified using DNA evidence.

The history and uses of DNA fingerprinting have regularly been covered on UK television and radio. The following list picks out some examples where the work of Alec Jeffreys and colleagues have been discussed.

UPDATE (10th March 2020): The 35th anniversary was itself the subject of some news coverage, eg BBC News at One on 6th March



Catching Britain’s Killers: The Crimes That Changed Us (2019) 
DNAmapThis hour-long documentary showed on BBC2 in October 2019 follows the development of DNA profiling from the murder of Lynda Mann in 1983 through to the establishment of a UK National DNA database in 1995 and the ongoing adoption of similar systems around the world. The programme picks up on the potential of DNA to solve crimes, but also touches on the ethical issues raised by the technology.
https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/clip/165475 (60 minutes)

 Judge Rinder’s Crime Stories (2017)
pitchforkTV Judge Rob Rinder fronts this series looking at important UK criminal cases. This episode (divided into two segments, below, to omit as advert break) presents the first criminal use of genetic fingerprinting. The first clip gives background to the case, and documents the lack of progress made using traditional policing methods, up to and including the false confession by Richard Buckland.
Part 1: https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/clip/165535 (12.5 mins)
Part 2: https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/clip/165536 (14 mins)

Catching History’s Criminals: The Forensics Story (2015)
Alec1Episode 1, A Question of Identity, this programme looks at the evolution from technologies to identify the remains of victims, through to the potential to predict the facial appearance of a suspect based on their DNA. The selected clip picks up at the point DNA Fingerprinting joins the story, and goes through to consideration of the possibilities of “molecular photofitting”
https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/clip/166441 (15 mins)

DNA 60 Years On (2013)

radioThe structure of DNA was solved by Watson and Crick in 1953. Sixty years later, this Radio 4 documentary, presented by Sir Robert Winston, reflected on the various ways in which our knowledge of DNA and its applications has evolved in the intervening period. Includes an interview with Alec Jeffreys about DNA fingerprinting (from 30 mins into the programme). Also includes an interview with Leicester’s Dr Mark Jobling about the uses of DNA profiles to determine somebody’s ancestral history (in this case demonstrating Robert Winston’s Jewish heritage entirely from an anonymous DNA sample).
https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/clip/166480 (60 mins)

Crime and Punishment (2012)
original autoradA segment from BBC daytime TV series Crime & Punishment, rehearsing the first use of DNA fingerprinting to exonerate Richard Buckland, who had confessed to the murder of Dawn Ashworth, and subsequently the charging of Colin Pitchfork for the murder of Dawn and the earlier murder of Lynda Mann. Includes interviews with Alec Jeffreys from 1987 and 2012.
https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/clip/166417 (6 mins)

Pioneers (2011)
radioA thirty minute BBC radio interview (originally transmitted in 2011, but repeated several times) in which Alec Jeffreys discusses the origins of genetic fingerprinting with Clare English.
https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/clip/165472 (30 mins)

Real Crime: Cracking the Killer’s Code (2010)
blood vialITV4 documentary, mixing interviews with extensive use of re-enactments.
Part 1: https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/clip/166426 (13:17 mins)
Part 2: https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/clip/166428 (13:21 mins)
Part 3: https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/clip/166430 (13:18 mins)
Part 4: https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/clip/166431 (8:38 mins)

Newsnight (2009)
Newsnight marked the 25th anniversary of the moment in September 1985 when Alec Jeffreys discovered DNA fingerprints
https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/clip/166150 (12 mins)

Newsnight (2008)
A brief update on Susan Watts’ investigation into the Low Copy Number DNA technique (aka Touch DNA), see below. Alec Jeffreys is mentioned but not interviewed.
https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/clip/166422 (3:45 mins)

Newsnight (2007b)
Susan Watts investigated controversies surrounding Low Copy Number (LCN) DNA technique following criticisms at the Omagh Bombing trial. Alec Jeffreys is interviewed.
https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/clip/166153 (16 mins)

Newsnight (2007a)
Alec Jeffreys is interviewed about the Madeleine McCann case
https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/clip/166149 (5:40 mins)

Desert Island Discs (2007)

Alec Jeffreys was Kirsty Wark’s guest on the legendary Desert Island Discs. The format always gives insights into the interviewee’s life story and allows them to choose eight pieces of music to take with them if they got cast away on a desert island. Alec chose a surprisingly eclectic mix of music for his trip.
https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/clip/165456 (42 mins), also available at


Code of a Killer (2015)


The real Alec Jeffreys does a “Hitchcock” cameo, walking past in this scene with John Simm and David Threlfall

Code of a Killer is a two-part dramatisation of the events surrounding the Leicestershire murders case and the first application of genetic fingerprinting in a criminal case. Alec Jeffreys is played by John Simm and DCS David Baker by David Threlfall. The real Alec makes a cameo appearance in the programme (walking past John Simm’s “Alec” in a science outside the Adrian Building where the original discovery had been made). Features some truly awful accents in which Leicester appears to have been transplanted into the West Midlands!
Part 1 (90 minutes) https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/clip/165060
Part 2 (90 minutes) https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/clip/165071

Related materials are available elsewhere:

Trailer (1 min) https://youtu.be/-zd1HzWl96Y

Interview with John Simm (2:25 mins, including that cameo by Alec) https://youtu.be/yul9pULejAU

A review of the docudrama can be heard in this episode of Front Row from 2015 https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/clip/166482 (4:36 mins)

For those who cannot access BoB, a copy of episode 1 (with Spanish subtitles) seems to be available at https://youtu.be/L3AEsrixGAo

Inevitably, given its importance, Genetics Fingerprinting or DNA Profiling has become an integral component of a great many crime dramas over the past thirty-five years. Occasionally Alec Jeffreys gets mentioned by name. For example in Girl’s Gone Wilder, an episode of the long-running series Crime Scene Investigation (s15 e5), central character Julie Finlay explains to a gunshot victim that she didn’t go to Med School because “I took a lecture with this guy Alec Jeffreys on DNA fingerprinting. That was it, I wanted to be a criminalist.” A clip of this incident is available at https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/clip/166147.   And in 2017, Professor Jeffreys “the forefather of DNA profiling” was mentioned in Silent Witness episode Discovery (s20 e4) see https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/clip/166372

And finally…

Forensics Uses of DNA
SCITalking of CSI, this video, made by University of Leicester students as an assessed project, features a SCI: Scene of Crime Investigation Leicester a spoof of the original series, It also features an interview with Alec about the science of genetic fingerprinting. Not a broadcast programme, but available on the Bioethicsbytes YouTube channel. https://youtu.be/NLpwVpuLIac

Is the answer “genetic fingerprinting”?
Aspects of DNA fingerprinting and it’s connection to Leicester have also cropped up as questions or answers on a variety of quiz shows, including University Challenge and Fifteen to One where, in 2014, a contestant was knocked out when he failed to state correctly that Alec Jeffreys had been awarded the Royal Society’s Copley Medal earlier that year (https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/clip/166373).

This resource compiled by Dr Chris Willmott in March 2020, to mark the 35th Anniversary of the publication of the first DNA fingerprinting paper in the journal Nature.


One thought on “35 years of DNA fingerprinting: an overview of broadcast media

  1. Pingback: Genetics and the longer arm of the law | Biology on the Box

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