It was a Monday morning in September 1984 and an x-ray film was being developed in a University of Leicester darkroom. Standing in that room Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys realised that what looked like a complicated mess actually revealed a mass of complex patterns. He has described this dark room discovery as a ‘eureka moment’; the moment when he realised that he had discovered DNA fingerprinting, a process that would change his life and the lives of millions of other people around the world.
DNA fingerprinting is a technique that gives a visual representation of an individual’s unique genetic code. His eureka moment was resolving those differences to a level of detail never seen before. The technique has been used to solve criminal cases, study wildlife populations, and perform parentage tests. DNA fingerprinting has been a truly revolutionary discovery; a discovery that was, in part, down to a technician.
Vicky Wilson was the departmental technician responsible for keeping Jefferys’ lab running and also contributed to his research programme. Their work focused on trying to understand the basic biology of segments of DNA that are highly variable between individuals. As a side project, they started to look for evidence that these variable segments shared a DNA sequence in common. Jefferys remembers, “I persuaded Vicky to help me with this side-line project and what we suspected would be a fruitless quest. As it turned out, I was wrong, and together we managed to define a short sequence shared by these repeats that enabled us to develop a method for detecting many of them simultaneously in the human genome, resulting accidentally in the first DNA fingerprint.” Vicky, her mother, and her father provided the genetic material for that first fingerprint.
In his 2004 acceptance speech for an honorary degree at the University of Loughborough, Jeffreys recognised that Vicky “saved DNA fingerprinting by rescuing a key ingredient of the technology that I had thrown into the bin in a fit of pique. She said, “No Alec, that’s not a bright idea”, and without realising it, rescued forensic DNA.” The item she had rescued from the bin? A small glass vial containing a bacterial culture in growth medium. Jeffreys recalls, “I thought it was of no use and therefore binned it. As it turned out, this clone was the key tool that enabled us to get DNA fingerprinting going. Quite a contribution by Vicky!”
Vicky moved from Leicester to the University of Nottingham in 1998 where she worked in the Division of Child Health, Obstetrics and Gynaecology in the School of Medicine. In 2015, she was recognised with the prestigious Papin Lifetime Achievement award at the Higher Education Technician Summit for “her pivotal contribution in the discovery of the technique now known as DNA fingerprinting and her help in establishing a vibrant and productive research laboratory within [the Division of] Child Health.”
You can read all of Sir Alec Jeffreys’s speech on the Leicester University website. There is an excellent short history of DNA fingerprinting written for the Wellcome Trust, though it interestingly does not mention Vicky. Another more detailed history can be found on Leicester’s Department of Genetics webpages, though this too fails to mention Vicky’s contribution. The story of Vicky winning the Papin award can be found on the University of Nottingham’s website. Vicky also appeared as a character in the ITV police drama “Code of a Killer” and was played by Lydia Rose Bewley. There are also two academic papers, both of which include Vicky as co-author.
- Jeffreys AJ, Wilson V and Thein SL. Hypervariable ‘minisatellite’ regions in human DNA. Nature 1985 314: 67-73.
- Jeffreys AJ, Wilson V, Thein SL. Individual-specific ‘fingerprints’ of human DNA. Nature 1985 316(6023):76-9.