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DNA - A Historical Perspective

470 to 322 B.C.: In their writings, Greek philosophers Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Plato describe their observation that certain human traits appear to be dominant and passed from parent to child.

1665: The groundwork for the development of Cell theory, the basis for understanding DNA, is laid by scientist Robert Hooke when he microscopically observes honeycomb-shaped structures within a piece of cork. He calls these structures cells.

1830’s: Another scientist, Robert Brown, observes a small, dark sphere inside plant cells. He begins to refer to these spheres the nucleus. It was also during this period that another pair of scientists, Theodor Schwann and Mathias Schleiden, conduct studies which conclude that the nucleus plays an important role in the growth and development of cells.

1856-1863: Gregor Mendel, an Austrian monk who is considered by many as the “father of genetics”, conducts experiments using peapods to explain the patterns of trait inheritance.

1869: Swiss scientist Johann Friedrich Miescher notes the presence of a substance within the nucleus of cells that has different properties from the protein contained within the cells’ remaining areas. He refers to this substance, which today is known as nucleic acid, as “nuclein’”

1912: Father & son physicists Sir William Henry Bragg & Sir William Lawrence Bragg discover that they can deduce the atomic structure of crystals from their X-ray diffraction patterns. This work earns them a Nobel Prize in Physics, but more importantly, it represents the first step in enabling scientists to determine the molecular structure of a compound.

1928: Franklin Griffith, a British medical officer, discovers the existence of a process now referred to transformation – the transfer of genetic information from heat-killed bacteria cells to living cells. This discovery provides the first indication that genetic material is a heat-stable chemical.

1944: The transforming agent observed by Griffith in 1928 is identified as DNA. This discovery, which was made by Oswald Avery, and his colleagues Maclyn McCarty and Colin MacLeod, is at first dismissed by many scientists who believe that DNA’s molecular structure is far too simple to be genetic material.

1949: Results of studies performed by biochemist Erwin Chargaff indicate that the composition of DNA appears to be species-specific; that is, that the amount of DNA and its nitrogenous bases varies from one species to another. Chargaff also finds that in the DNA of every species, the amount of adenine equals the amount of thymine, and the amount of guanine equals the amount of cytosine.

1950’s: Scientists Maurice Wilkins, Rosalind Franklin, Francis H. C. Crick of Britain and American James D. Watson discover the chemical structure of DNA. This discovery leads to the study of a new branch of science – molecular biology.

1953: James Watson and Francis Crick discover the molecular structure of DNA.

1962: Francis Crick, James Watson, and Maurice Wilkins receive the Nobel Prize for determining the molecular structure of DNA.

1977: Restriction Fragment Length Polymorphism (RFLP), a method for identifying individuals from their DNA is discovered by Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys of Leicester University in England. Jeffreys refers to his discovery as “DNA Fingerprinting”.

1986: American chemist Kary Mullis develops a process for making copies of specific DNA strands. He refers to this process as Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR). This discovery is important because it allows DNA to be replicated accurately and efficiently.

1988: In the UK, police use DNA profiling in the celebrated Pitchfork murder case to identify the man ultimately found guilty of brutally raping and murdering two young girls. In the same case, DNA profiling is also used to a seventeen year old suspect.

1987: Also in the UK, Robert Melias becomes the first person in history to be convicted of a crime based on DNA evidence. Not long after, Tommy Lee Andres of Florida becomes the first person in the U.S. to be convicted based on DNA evidence.

1989: Gary Dotson becomes the first person to have a conviction overturned on the basis of DNA evidence. At the time his conviction was overturned, Dotson had already served 8 years of a 25 - 50 year sentence for rape.

1989: Australia's has its first court case involving DNA evidence. After Desmond Applebee is convicted of three counts of sexual assault, he changes his defense from "I wasn't there" to "the woman consented" when a blood sample matches him to DNA extracted from blood and semen on the victim's clothes.

1989: In Melbourne, Victoria Australia, George Kaufman confesses to raping sixteen women over a four year period after he is confronted with DNA evidence.

1989: Recognizing the far-reaching implications of the continued use of DNA evidence, the United States Federal Government and several States and Canadian Territories begin to develop regulatory standards for DNA collection and handling procedures.

1992: Recognizing the need to implement standards of their own, the National Institute of Forensic Science is established in Australia. The agency’s primary roles are to sponsor and support research in forensic science, Advise on and assist with the development and co-ordination of forensic science services, gather and exchange forensic information, support, co-ordinate and conduct training programs in forensic science and conduct relevant quality assurance programs.

1995: Following amendments to the Police & Criminal Evidence Act of 1984 by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1984, The National DNA Database (NDNAD), an intelligence database, it set up. These amendments allow samples such as mouth scrapes and hair samples to be obtained for DNA analysis under the same circumstances which fingerprints are obtained. The information derived from these samples can then be searched against records held by or on behalf of the police.

1996: Mitochondrial DNA (mDNA – genetic material important for cell metabolism) evidence is used for the first time in a U.S. court. Paul Ware is convicted of the rape and murder of a four year old girl after mitochondrial DNA profiling matches him to a hair found on the body of the child.

1998: The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) sets up the National DNA Index System which enables city, county, state and federal law enforcement agencies to electronically compare DNA profiles. In Australia, forensic laboratories agree to a common national standard for use in obtaining DNA profiles.

2000: In the UK, the Forensic Science Service discloses that the number of DNA profiles of suspects and convicted criminals on the national DNA database has reached one million. This represents approximately one third of the estimated criminally active population. Additionally, the CrimTrac Agency, a national law enforcement support initiative developed to give police ready access to information needed to solve crimes, is established in Australia. A central element to this initiative is the development of a national DNA database.

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