How do my genes make me who I am?

Less than a year after Elizabeth II became Queen, a fundamental problem in science was solved - the basis of heredity, Francis Crick and James Watson, taking into account also the work of Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins, solved the structure of DNA, revealing how our genetic information passes between generations. The legacy of finding this fundamental secret of life has been immense.

DNA’s structure (1953)

Francis Crick FRS, James Watson FRS

Crick and Watson’s model, with its 2-stranded helix and pairs of complementary chemical groups (‘bases’) , showed how DNA reproduced itself – by splitting down the middle and providing templates for forming two new 2-stranded copies of the original.

Cloned cells (1958)

John Gurdon FRS

When he was only 25 and working as a postgraduate, Gurdon laid the ground for the work being done today on cloning a patient’s own cells for use in medical operations. He showed an adult frog cell’s nucleus could be transferred into another cell, and result in a whole new frog.

Rapid DNA analysis (1977)

Frederick Sanger FRS

Sanger gained his second Nobel Prize for developing a new, rapid, way to find out the sequence of bases along a strand of DNA. His first Nobel Prize was for working out the sequence of amino acids in insulin.

Stem cell research (1981)

Martin Evans FRS

Evans genetically altered mouse cells in very early stages of development (stem cells) creating laboratory animals tailored for testing specific medical treatments.

Understanding how cancer grows (1982)

Paul Nurse FRS, Tim Hunt FRS

To tackle out-of-control cancerous cells, Nurse identified two key genes that govern how our cells divide. Tim Hunt, working with collaborator Leland Hartwell, shared the Nobel Prize with Nurse for their discovery of other key proteins involved in this process.

Genetic fingerprinting (1984)

Alec Jeffreys FRS

Jeffreys developed the method known as genetic fingerprinting used to identify suspects from miniscule DNA traces at crime scenes.

Dolly the sheep (1996)

Ian Wilmut FRS

Dolly was unique: the first successful clone of a mammal, created by reprogramming an unfertilised egg cell with a cell from an adult sheep. This proved that a cell taken from a specific part of the body could recreate a whole individual.

Human Genome Project (2003)

John Sulston FRS

The Human Genome Project produced a complete human genome sequence, allowing researchers to study genes and what they do. The UK effort was in collaboration with colleagues in the USA.

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Sovereign Science

An exhibition to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, the Royal Society's patron.

See all the discoveries.

Great British Innovation Vote

The Great British Innovation Vote is a public vote held in March 2013 to discover the nation's favourite innovation of the last 100 years. Many of the discoveries and inventions on this page are featured in the poll.