Tag Archives: Roger Highfield

30th Anniversary of DNA Fingerprinting

By Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs

This fuzzy image, taken on 10 September 1984, launched a revolution; one that sent out shockwaves that can still be felt today. It is the first DNA fingerprint, taken on a Monday morning at the University of Leicester by Alec Jeffreys, now Sir Alec in recognition of his momentous achievement.

The first genetic fingerprint, 1984 © Science Museum / SSPL

The first genetic fingerprint, 1984 © Science Museum / SSPL

The fuzzy pattern that he recorded on an X-ray film was based on genetic material from one of his technicians, Vicky Wilson. At that time, Sir Alec was investigating highly repetitive zones of the human genetic code called “minisatellites”, where there is much variation from person to person. He wanted to study these hotspots of genetic change to find the cause of the DNA diversity that makes every human being on the planet unique.

Gazing at the X-ray film recording Wilson’s minisatellites, he thought to himself: “That’s a mess.”
But then, as he told me, “the penny dropped”. In this mess he stumbled on a kind of fingerprint, one which showed not only which parts of Wilson’s DNA came from her mother and which from her father, but also the unique genetic code that she possessed, one that was shared by no other human being on the planet.

In that Eureka moment, the science of DNA fingerprinting was born.

Sir Alec and his technician made a list of all the possible applications of genetic fingerprinting – but it was his wife, Sue, who spotted the potential for resolving immigration disputes, which in fact proved to be the first application.

An autoradiograph of the first genetic fingerprint, 1984 © Science Museum / SSPL

An autoradiograph of the first genetic fingerprint, 1984 © Science Museum / SSPL

Soon after his discovery, Sir Alec was asked to help confirm the identity of a boy whose family was originally from Ghana. DNA results proved that the boy was indeed a close relation of people already in the UK. The results were so conclusive that the Home Office, after being briefed by the professor, agreed to drop the case and the boy was allowed to stay in the country, to his mother’s immense relief. “Of all the cases,” he recalls, “this is the one that means most to me.’’

Sir Alec is the first to admit that he never realised just how useful his work would turn out to be: in resolving paternity issues, for example, in studies of wildlife populations and, of course, in many criminal investigations (DNA fingerprinting was first used by police to identify the rapist and killer of two teenage girls murdered in Narborough, Leicestershire, in 1983 and in 1986 respectively).

Similar methods were used to establish the identity of the ‘Angel of Death’ Josef Mengele (using bone from the Nazi doctor’s exhumed skeleton), and to identify the remains of Tsar Nicholas II and his family – in the course of which the Duke of Edinburgh gave a blood sample.

Sir Alec told the University recently: “The discovery of DNA fingerprinting was a glorious accident. It was best summarised in a school project that a grandson of mine did years ago: ‘DNA fingerprinting was discovered by my granddad when he was messing about in the lab’. Actually, you can’t describe it better than that – that is exactly what we were doing.”

Sir Alec has long been concerned about the world’s DNA databases. He describes how there needs to be a balance between the state’s rights to investigate and solve crime and an individual’s right to genetic privacy. “I take the very simple view that my genome is my own and nobody may access it unless with my permission.”

As for what happens next, Sir Alec says: ‘I’m now retired and consequently busier than ever.’

One of 12 cognitive tests which look at memory, reasoning, attention and planning abilities

Biggest intelligence test exposes the limits of IQ

By Adam Hampshire, Brain and Mind Institute, University of Western Ontario

To what extent are some people smarter than others? For a century, psychologists have believed that we can boil differences in cognitive skill down to a single number known as an Intelligence Quotient (IQ). But does one number really represent an individual’s ability to remember, to reason and to think? The answer is an emphatic no, according to the results of a landmark experiment conducted on many tens of thousands of people with the help of Roger Highfield of the Science Museum Group.

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With Roger and my colleague Adrian Owen, who works with me at the University of Western Ontario, I describe our findings today in the journal Neuron.

Our  attempt to answer this simple question dates back more than five years, when Roger encountered work that I had conducted with Adrian at the Medical Research Council in Cambridge on a reliable way to carry out cognitive tests online so we could monitor rehabilitation after brain injury, the effect of smart drug trials and so on.

Roger wondered if we could use this test to carry out a mass intelligence test. Drawing on earlier data from brain scans,  Adrian and I came up with a series of tests which we knew would trigger activity in as much of the brain’s anatomy as possible, combining the fewest tasks to cover the broadest range of cognitive skills.

In half an hour, respondents had to complete 12 cognitive tests which look at memory, reasoning, attention and planning abilities, as well as a fill in a survey about their background and lifestyle habits (Roger and Adrian describe the tests here).

One of 12 cognitive tests which look at memory, reasoning, attention and planning abilities

We expected a few hundred responses. But thanks to articles in The Daily Telegraph, Discovery and New Scientist, 110,000 people took part from every corner of the world. Once I had used statistical methods to analyse more than a million data points on a representative group of around 45,000, I found that when a wide range of cognitive abilities are probed, the variations in performance can only be explained with at least three distinct components: short-term memory; reasoning; and finally, a verbal component.

No one component, or ‘IQ’, explained all the variations revealed by the tests.

To bolster our results, Adrian and I used a $5 million brain scanner, which relies on a technique known as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), to study 16 participants as they carried out all 12 tests.  We found that each of the three different factors identified by the analysis did indeed correspond to a different brain network: these differences in cognitive ability map onto three distinct circuits in the brain.

The results disprove once and for all the idea that a single measure of intelligence, such as ‘IQ’, is enough to capture all of the differences in cognitive ability that we see between people. Instead, several different brain circuits contribute to intelligence, each with its own unique capacity. A person may well be good in one of these areas, but they are just as likely to be bad in the other two.

Because so many people took part, the results also provided a wealth of information about how factors such as age, gender and the tendency to play computer games influence our brain function.

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For example, people who regularly played computer games did perform significantly better in terms of both reasoning and short-term memory. Smokers performed poorly on the short-term memory and the verbal factors, while people who frequently suffer from anxiety performed badly on the short-term memory factor in particular.

We are now launching a new version of the tests here. To ensure we do not bias the results of the new tests, we can’t say much about the agenda other than that there are many more fascinating questions about the true nature of intelligence that we want to answer.

Adam Hampshire works at the Brain and Mind Institute, University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario.

The ENCODE display at the Science Museum

Heroes of Science

“If science is to inspire, engage and thrive, it needs its heroes more than ever.” This was the key message from Dr. Roger Highfield, our Director of External Affairs, and this year’s recipient of the Wilkins-Bernal-Medawar Medal, at his Royal Society lecture ‘Heroes of Science’ earlier this week.

Modern science is now so often a global collaborative effort, with thousands of researchers joining forces on gigantic scientific undertakings such as the Large Hadron Collider, ENCODE and the Polymath Project. As research teams have become the norm in scientific discovery, many are asking is modern science is too big for heroes?

The ENCODE display at the Science Museum

Roger disagrees, arguing in his lecture (and in this Daily Telegraph article) that “it would be a disaster if we provided an uninspiring vision of scientific advance as a relentless march of an army of ants.” The likes of Isaac Newton or Marie Curie, who won two Nobel prizes before dying due to prolonged radiation exposure, provide inspirational stories of scientific discovery, and these stories continue to this day through figures such as Peter Higgs, Craig Venter and Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

These scientists would never claim to have worked alone, but this is often how they are portrayed. In the crowded realm of ideas, heroes are often the most viral transmitters of the values of science. Our fascination with heroes could perhaps be explained by recent brain scan studies by Francesca Happé and colleagues in London, which show the existence of a hard-wired fondness for narratives in us all.

EEG hat

An EEG hat, used to measure brain activity

Roger ended his lecture with a final thought on the use of metaphors to convey complex ideas, noting that by the same token, heroic characters who appreciate scientific discovery are needed to express a vivid sense of the way science works.

The Wilkins-Bernal-Medawar lecture is given annually on a subject relating to the history, philosophy or social function of science. The accompanying Medal is named in memory of three Fellows of the Royal Society, John Desmond Bernal, Peter Medawar, and John Wilkins, the first Secretary of the Society. Previous recipients of the Medal include Melvyn Bragg, who lectured on the history of the Royal Society, and Professor David Edgerton, who discussed twentieth century science and history.