The recipe for life revealed as the most important UK discovery

Published: 17 June 2010 at 12:19

DNA tops the poll of most important discovery by UK universities

A poll of UK academics – including representatives from Anglia Ruskin University - released this week has revealed that DNA is considered to be the most important discovery made by their peers. The poll was carried out to mark Universities Week, which is to take place from 14-20 June. It placed the discovery of the structure of DNA (unveiled on 28 February 1953) ahead of other key UK university discoveries such as the computer, Dolly the Sheep and the contraceptive pill.

DNA topped the poll with 26% of the vote, surpassing genetic fingerprinting (12.5%) and the birth of the first working computer (7.6%).

Professor Harry Kroto, joint winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1996 for the discovery of the C60 molecule (Buckminsterfullerene – a new form of carbon) announced the results and saw his own discovery making it into the top ten.  He said:

“It surely comes as no surprise that DNA has come out top. It is not only pre-eminently important to understanding almost every fundamental aspect of life itself but it is also so beautiful and at the same time so simple in revealing how genetic characteristics are transmitted. Despite the fact that the discovery is over 50 years old this finding is instrumental in every element of our lives and the basis of our understanding about life on Earth."

"This list demonstrates the outstanding level of achievement of research scientists in UK universities and their impact on our everyday lives. Even in another 60 years I hope that this list will inspire people to appreciate the contribution to human knowledge and well-being of researchers in our universities. We have some of the world’s best researchers and must continue to value their work if we are to advance our understanding of the world and of what humans are capable."

The top ten may come as a surprise to many, who perhaps are not aware of how influential UK researchers have been in developing innovations, theories and technologies that have changed our lives.

1)     DNA - James Watson and Francis Crick unveiled the double helix structure of the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) in 1953. DNA is a spiral staircase of molecules that exists in all our cells and contains the recipe for living things and the characteristics that are passed on from one generation to another

2)     Genetic fingerprinting – scientists from the University of Leicester developed a technique of identifying individual DNA make up in 1985. Genetic fingerprints are like real fingerprints in that they are unique to every individual (except identical twins) and have greatly assisted the fight against crime.

3)     Birth of the first working computer Two University Manchester scientists are credited with running the world’s first stored programme computer. In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s they produced a series of breakthroughs in the early development of the computer

4)     The contraceptive pill - Herchel Smith, a researcher at the University of Manchester, who in 1961 developed an inexpensive way of producing chemicals that can stop women ovulating during their monthly menstrual cycle.

5)     Cancer and cell division Experts from Cancer Research UK were the first to identify the key genes that govern and regulate the cell cycle and cell division in 1987, further early stage research at Oxbridge, which subsequently paved the way for progress in treating cancer.

6)     CDs, DVDs and the Internet The Internet, CDs and DVDs have all been made possible through a technology called strained quantum-well lasers that was first proposed by Alf Adams at Surrey University. These lasers work by transforming information into pulses of light, or photons.

7)     The Gaia hypothesis While studying the atmosphere on the planet Mars, James Lovelock developed the ‘Gaia hypothesis’ – the idea of the earth as a self-regulating living organism –-  this revolutionary understanding of the earth transformed public attitudes towards the environment.

8)     Eradicating the Tsetse fly - Scientists from the University of Greenwich have been working to eradicate the Tsetse fly from Africa through the use of a novel artificial cow, which attracts the tsetse and kills them through insecticides. The discovery lead to a dramatic fall in the fatal sleeping sickness

9)     Stem cells Martin Evans’ early research at Cambridge University led to his discovery of embryonic stem cells - cells so early in their development that they have the potential to grow into the different cells that make-up the human body.

10)  Microscopic footballs It was only in 1985 that the third well-defined form of pure carbon was discovered. Harry Kroto at Sussex University, and his US collaborators Robert Curl and Richard Smalley, revealed that carbon can exist as tiny spherical molecules, now known as fullerenes or buckyballs.

Following closely behind these key discoveries were Magnetic Resonance Imaging scans; ultrasound scans; the discovery of conclusive evidence of smoking damaging the user’s health; the building blocks of insulin and uncovering the body’s defence mechanisms, all of which were discovered and progressed by UK university academics.

UK universities are world-renowned for their progressive and innovative research. Internationally, the UK is second only to the US in terms of research papers for clinical, health, environmental, mathematics, and social sciences research, and third behind US and China for research paper output. For total citations (i.e. the referencing of their work to support further research) the UK is second to the US in clinical sciences, health sciences, biological sciences, environmental sciences, social sciences and business. It is above Germany, Japan, France, China, Canada and Italy.

A total of 432 UK academics were polled throughout May. The list of the greatest discoveries by UK academics was compiled from the Universities UK publication, Eureka and spans discoveries from the past 60 years.