Roy Britten was born in Washington, D.C.. He went to the University of Virginia to study physics, worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II and received his Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1951.
Britten attended the phage course at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and started working on DNA hybridization. Through this work, he showed that eukaryotic genomes have many repetitive, non-coding DNA sequences -- junk DNA.
Britten has been at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) for many years. He was a Visiting Associate at from 1971-73, a Senior Research Associate at Caltech from 1973-81 and Distinguished Carnegie Senior Research Associate from 1981-99. In 1999 he became Distinguished Carnegie Senior Research Associate in Biology, Emeritus at caltech.