The Inventor

John O’Brien has a gene gun. He shoots cells to change their genetic information.

I have spent 10 years working on a gene gun; a tool to insert genetic information into a cell. It was originally used to create new strains of plants. In the future, the gene gun may make it possible to deliver DNA vaccines directly into the human skin or muscle cells without damaging them.

My eureka moment came over coffee with a retired police firearms expert who explained to me how the barrel of a gun works.

Every day in the lab is different. Sometimes I spend the best part of my day reading scientific papers and discussing them with my group leader. Or I might plan new experiments or meetings, or give a seminar, either within the building or another lab. During the day, I get many phone calls and emails about the gene gun. I also hear from people who want to find out how to use the microscopes.

The key to a successful day for me is making sure that I am organised and that I achieve all my objectives. When an experiment goes wrong, it’s a bad day. But I’m patient. I go back to the drawing board and try to understand what went wrong. “Keep going; failure is not an option!” That’s my personal motto.

When I get a good result – it’s a wonderful feeling. You know that maybe no else in the world may have produced this. You also know that with time this will be written up as a scientific paper for a journal and you will have your name on it.

When I left school after my A-levels, I was offered a job at Lloyds Bank but I turned it down because I would have had to wear a suit every day. Now, 27 years later, I think science is the best job in the world. Science is a journey into the unknown.

John O’Brien, research support scientist, MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge

To contact John, or any of the scientists featured here, please email

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