Concept 31 Some DNA does not encode protein.

Roy Britten Roy Britten did seminal research on repetitive DNA and its evolutionary origins.

Roy John Britten (1919-2012)

Roy Britten was born in Washington D.C. His mother worked at the National Research Council and his father was a statistician. Britten was exposed to science early on. Growing up, Britten and his brother shared a basement chemistry lab. He also frequented the public exhibits in the rotunda of one of the National Academy buildings, where he could see the working of a Foucault pendulum and learn about sunspots.

In 1940, he went to the University of Virginia to study physics. Not long after, he was recruited to work on the Manhattan Project. He didn't return to school until 1946. He went to Princeton to do graduate work in nuclear physics.

By the time he finished his Ph.D. in 1951, Britten had decided that the world of nuclear physics had changed. He made plans to do post-doctoral work in biophysics at the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism in the Carnegie Institution in Washington. He took the phage course at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory to brush up on his biology, and started working on the kinetics of DNA hybridization with the group at the Carnegie. Through this work, Britten showed that eukaryotic genomes have many repetitive, non-coding DNA sequences.

After his work on repetitive DNA, Britten was interested in evolutionary biology, specifically the nature of repetitive DNA and its origin and evolutionary history. He worked on human repetitive DNA elements like Alu, and repetitive DNA elements in sea urchins - a candidate organism for the sequencing project. He also looked at other repetitive elements in the human genome from data generated by the Human Genome Sequencing Project.

Britten moved to the California Institute of Technology in 1970 and remained there for the rest of his career. He was part of the gene regulation research group and a Distinguished Carnegie Senior Research Associate, Emeritus. He was also an adjunct professor at the University of California, Irvine. He continued his work on DNA sequence structure, focusing on evolutionary relationships between Humans and Great Apes, including the importance of transposable elements.

Britten had a number of hobbies and interests outside of science. He was  a long-time sailor and musician, playing the flute. Britten painted "oils, because water-color is too difficult," and to keep up with the times, he generated computer art. He also wrote science fiction.

factoid Did you know ?

Repetitive DNA sequences may function in something called "meiotic drive." In Drosophila, one chromosome of a pair gets "selected" for the egg and this may have something to do with the existence of certain repetitive DNA sequences.


Can you think of other reasonable theories for the existence and maintenance of repetitive DNA?