Thursday, 6 March 2014

#genes2shape and Biology on the Radio

A couple of articles published recently, both related to my time with the Naked Scientists. First, for the Genetics Society, a report from the Genes to Shape conference held at the Royal Society late last year:

(starts on page 20, see also page 43)

Second, an article for The Node, about the challenges of bringing developmental biology to the radio:

Monday, 16 December 2013

The Naked Scientists Guide to Genetics

I HAVE had the pleasure over the past two months to work with the Naked Scientists at Cambridge University, culminating in a one-hour live show on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire last night.

As part of my internship, kindly funded by the Genetics Society, I made an audio guide to Genetics, introducing the key terms - DNA, genes, chromosomes, alleles and so on - while meeting fascinating people who work in the field. I come across a strange creature from the depths of the sea bed, and make some furry friends! Plus, humans are 50% banana, yet only 4% Neanderthal. What does that mean?

The guide is available to listen and download here in its entirety or as separate sections.

Feedback is very welcome, as I've never made anything like this before.

Contributors, in order of appearance:
Enrico Coen, President of the Genetics Society
Max Telford, University College London
Mark Thomas, University College London
Eugenio Sanchez-Moran, University of Birmingham
Nelly Brewer, Rothamsted Research

Terms explained:
Allele (dominant and recessive),

Music: Adventure, Darling by Gillicuddy; Dan-O, at

Monday, 25 November 2013

Monday Science: Bodyguard Drugs for TB

Tuberculosis (TB) is notoriously difficult to treat, not least because the bacterium that causes it can hide inside macrophages - the very cells tasked with destroying invading infection. New research at Imperial College London has been approaching the problem from a biochemical angle, and may have come up with a way to design drugs that can guard the macrophage from invasion, exposing the disease to the active immune system.

Here's my interview with project leader Kurt Drickamer, my news article, and the original reference.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Nikolai Vavilov: Forgotten Scientist

CENTENARY celebrations are afoot for the life and legacy of Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of evolution by means of natural selection, who died in 1913. Many are familiar with the story of Charles Darwin, but fewer are aware of Wallace's contribution, which triggered the publication of Darwin's seminal work. Wallace is one of many poorly appreciated, and forgotten, scientists.

Another, is Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov.

A botanist and geneticist who uncovered the geographical origins of widely grown crop plants, whose worked inspired the modern study of Crop Wild Relatives (CWRs), and whose collections were so valuable that they were guarded night and day throughout the two-year World War II Siege of Leningrad, during which at least one of his assistants starved to death; an adventurer once stranded in the Sahara, who led caravans across unmapped Afghan mountains and up the crocodile-infested Nile; a scientist whose work ensured the global population could be fed, Nikolai Vavilov died of starvation in a Soviet gulag, forgotten.

Vavilov's scientific career featured many more adventures than most scientists could dream of. Posted to Iran in 1916 to collect plants on behalf of the Russian Empire, he was arrested before even leaving his own country, charged as a 'German spy' for carrying German textbooks and diaries written in English. He was abandoned by Kyrgyz guides in the Pamir mountains in Central Asia; took a caravan of fourteen guides "and two revolvers" into Eritrea; caught malaria in Syria; caught typhus in Ethiopia; and further visited the United States; Central and South America; China, Taiwan, Japan and Korea, all in the name of collecting plants.

But why?

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Where the Booze is Cheaper

"Queen Victoria, listening to a military band at Windsor, was captivated by a certain tune and sent a messenger to ascertain the title of it. He returned in some embarrassment and said that it was called 'Come Where the Booze is Cheaper'."

They Were Singing by Christopher Pulling,
seen in Encyclopedia of World History, 1999, edited by Professor Jeremy Black

Monday, 11 November 2013

RiAus: Dogs Tell Tails

MY latest for RiAus is a take on the dog tail wagging story that hit the news a week or so ago. I had the privilege of pre-embargo access to the work and of talking to Professor Vallortigara about the work; sadly, my piece came out just a little too late - the story had already spread far and wide. Nonetheless, I think my attempt does cover some ground not seen elsewhere, and it was good fun to put together. I also got to talk about the study live on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire last Monday evening.

So... dog tail wagging is a secret code. YEAHBUTSOWHAT?

Monday, 28 October 2013

Monday Science: Saving the Rainforest, and the Great British Bake Off

A DOUBLE does of science for you this Monday.

FIRST, here's an article I wrote on a new study that has produced plant leaves that make oil. I know, I know, that sounds horrendously boring... BUT! this is really quite remarkable.

Oil contains much more energy than sugar, meaning oily plants are great for making fuel and fodder products. The problem at the moment is that oil is mostly only obtained from seeds, leaving all of the green vegetation - which of course makes up most of the plant tissue, or biomass - to go to waste.

This study uses GM technology to increase leaf oil, and thereby plant oil, by 170-fold. The result? Plants that yield far more energy, fuel, nutritious foods and, when burnt, electricity. It means that much less land would be needed to farm the crops, massively reducing the environmental destruction caused by, for example, palm oil production in the rainforests.

I recorded an interview too, which you can hear here, and, as I write, my narrated piece is being touted for broadcast on BBC Radio 5 Live.

SECOND, this week's Quick Fire Science paid homage to the Great British Bake Off, which finished on Tuesday. Never before have the terms "millefeuille" and "soggy bottom" been said on the Naked Scientists. For this, I make no apology.

Listen to the audio here, if you please.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Monday Science: How to build a brain

ADVANCES in genetic sequencing have produced a rather useful tool for quickly determining the root cause of brand new, never-before-seen genetic disorders. That knowledge is then indispensable when it comes to finding a solution.

In my latest Naked Scientists article, I chatted with Professor David Goldstein at Duke University School of Medicine about his latest work, in which he identified the cause of a new brain disorder, in doing so finding an unexpected role for a 'non-essential' protein in building the brain in the first place. 

You can read the article here, and follow the links to hear the audio.

Source: Ruzzo et al. Deficiency of Asparagine Synthetase Causes Congenital Microcephaly and a Progressive Form of Encephalopathy Neuron 80, 429-441 (2013)