8 key British inventions of the last century

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DNA sequencing

Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is the chemical code inside cells which bears the instructions for synthesising all the different protein molecules that are needed to build humans, animals and plants. It is an extremely long molecule that is made up of individual building blocks, called nucleotides, arranged in a particular order known as the DNA sequence.

Early attempts to work out different DNA sequences were slow and labour-intensive. Then, in the 1970s, biochemist Dr Frederick Sanger, working in a research laboratory in Cambridge, pioneered new methods for DNA sequencing. This was a major breakthrough, enabling long pieces of DNA to be rapidly and accurately sequenced.

The so-called ‘Sanger Method’ was fundamental in the sequencing of all the DNA in the human genome, made up of billions of nucleotides, which was announced at the start of this century. Since then genomes of thousands of organisms have been sequenced, including the chicken, dog, cucumber, banana, gorilla, tiger and spider.

The ability to sequence DNA has revolutionised biological research and is set to transform medicine and human health. Sanger was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry for his technique.

His the only person to have won two chemistry Nobel prizes.

Carbon fibre

Royal Mail describes carbon fibres as thin filaments that are incorporated into resin and baked to create a reinforced plastic that is significantly stronger but considerably lighter than metal. This ‘composite’ material can be moulded into the required shape and is used in a wide range of machines and objects, such as military and commercial aeroplanes, spacecraft, hi-tech sports equipment, wind turbines and Formula One cars.

To produce the fibres, a substance containing carbon is heated to extremely high temperatures (1000 £3000C) in an atmosphere containing no oxygen. Under such conditions, the carbon atoms join together to form structures that are extremely tough and stiff without being brittle.

In the 1950s and 1960s, researchers in the USA were working hard to uncover the secrets of producing carbon fibres. However, it was not until 1964 that Edinburgh-born William Watt, working at the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Hampshire, that produced a superior version of the fibres from polyacrylonitrile (PAN).

It was quite the race. Although the US didnt have PAN at their disposal, and quickly fell behind, Japan was right at their heels.

Watt and his team quickly put PAN-based carbon fibres to commercial use. 

This formula for creating carbon fibres is still the most popular in use today, 50 years later. However, it was the Japanese that took lead in the manufacturing process and made it a global success.

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