Page last updated at 14:03 GMT, Tuesday, 8 April 2008 15:03 UK

Innovators shortlisted for award

Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys
Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys is based at the University of Leicester

The creator of DNA fingerprinting heads the shortlist for the prestigious Millennium Technology Prize.

Professor Alec Jeffreys is joined by Prof David Payne, co-inventor of an optical amplifier which transformed telecommunications, on the list.

Prof Payne's co-inventors, Prof Emmanual Desurvire and Dr Randy Giles, are also finalists.

Dr Andrew Viterbi, whose algorithm aids communications, and biomaterial pioneer Prof Robert Langer are also contenders.

The Millennium Technology Prize, a kind of unofficial Nobel Prize for technology, is one of the most prestigious awards for innovation and is given every second year for a technology that "significantly improves the quality of human life, today and in the future".

The prize is awarded by the Technology Academy Finland, an independent foundation established by Finnish industry, in partnership with the Finnish government.

If nothing else, DNA has captured the public's imagination
Sir Alec Jeffreys

The winner of the prize receives 800,000 euros, while the creators of the other innovations will each be awarded 115,000 euros.

Previous recipients include Sir Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the world wide web, and Prof Shuji Nakamura, inventor of blue, green and white light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and the blue laser diode.

Continued development

Sir Alec, from the University of Leicester, UK, said being shortlisted was a great honour and "a great recognition for DNA technology and the way it has progressed over the last 24 years".

"If nothing else, DNA has captured the public's imagination; it's out there every single day in papers and on the television; and the technology has reached out and touched the lives of 20 million people," he told BBC News.

He added: "Every single time this has happened it's a drama for that person, in terms of a DNA test; whether it's a father learning about his son, an immigrant family being reunited or an innocent man being saved off death row."

Sir Alec's innovation has been described as a "Eureka" moment, when he looked at the X-ray of a DNA experiment he was working on in September 1984 and saw both similarities and differences in his technician's family DNA.

He said the only people not celebrating this honour were "criminals who were being caught thanks to DNA fingerprinting".

The current research focus, he explained, was to reduce the time lag between taking a DNA test and getting a result, or fingerprint.

"It can be as quick as a few hours, but we want to get it down to a second, to real time. Imagine the security possibilities if we could establish identity that quickly," he said.

Fibre solution

Prof Robert Langer, who is based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a pioneer in biomaterials and has been shortlisted "for his inventions and development of innovative biomaterials for controlled drug release and tissue regeneration that have saved and improved the lives of millions of people".

Fibre optics on a world map
Prof Payne's co-creation helped transform global communications

Italian-American engineer Andrew Viterbi has been shortlisted for his creation of an algorithm that makes billions of phone calls every day possible on mobile networks.

The Viterbi algorithm, said the Academy, was "the key building element in modern wireless and digital communications systems, touching lives of people everywhere".

Three scientists have been shortlisted for their work in developing technology which made possible the creation of a high-speed global fibre-optic network.

In the mid-1980s, Prof David Payne, and his team at Southampton University, was in competition with Dr Emmanuel Desurvire and Dr Randy Giles at Bell Labs to develop an optical amplifier that could solve the inadequacies of fibre optic cables of the day.

The two teams developed an optical amplifier, called an erbium-doped fibre amplifier, which was power efficient and enabled light to travel along cables without having to be transformed into an electrical signal and then resent with a new laser.

Keeping pace

Prof Payne was first to publish a paper about erbium-doped fibre amplifiers, but Dr Desurvire, now at Thales Research, and Dr Giles, now director of optical subsystems at Bell Labs, were first to make it a working tool.

The amplifier transformed the telecommunications industry and is now a vital part of the global optical fibre network that acts as a backbone to the net.

Prof Payne said he was proud and humbled by the way his amplifiers had helped the global roll-out of the internet and optical telecommunications.

He said fibre to the home was essential if Britain was going to compete with broadband take-up around the world.

"Sadly broadband speeds in this country aren't really broadband at all. I won't be happy until every home has a one gigabit per second connection," he told BBC News.

He added: "If we were able to afford to dig up the road in the 1980s to roll out cable TV then we can afford to do it again."

He said fibre networks needed to grow if they were to cope with demand for bandwidth in the future.

"Forward projections show that we will fill up the bandwidth of the existing backbone around 2015. What that means is that you have to put in as many fibres every year as the growth of the internet.

The winner of the Millennium Technology Prize will be announced on 11 June.

Meet the innovators
08 Apr 08 |  Technology
Top prize for 'light' inventor
08 Sep 06 |  Technology
New honour for the web's inventor
15 Apr 04 |  Technology

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