In the latest episode of Genetics Unzipped, presenter Kat Arney explores the impact that humans have had on the evolutionary trajectories of the species we share the planet with.
From driving species to extinction to selectively breeding pets and farm animals with new technologies like genetic engineering and cloning, it’s impossible to ignore the impact that humans are having on life on the planet today.
A life-changing conversation
Kat chats with science writer Helen Pilcher about the themes in her book, Life Changing: How humans are altering life on earth, looking at the ways in which humans have shaped animal species, through selective breeding, genetic engineering, and changing habitats and the climate. From Pilcher’s own genetically modified wolf (also known as the family dog…) to golden gnus and swifter swallows, we hear about some of the many ways – whether intentional or not – in which we have changed the animals around us.
As Helen points out, although we now have tools that enable us to genetically engineer animals and plants, we’ve been making dramatic changes to species without having to go near a lab at all.
“I find it really interesting because if you were to say to somebody, ‘Look, I’ve got this friend who works in the lab and they’ve got this idea to make this animal and it’s going to be a new kind of dog, it’s going to be really chunky and it’s going to have a really thick neck so that it won’t be able to be born naturally, it’s going to have all these winkling folds of flesh around his face so it’ll be cute but it’ll have dreadful breathing conditions, and maybe you might need to have surgery on this dog just to keep it healthy’, you’d say ‘Whoa, bad idea, put the brakes on now!’ And yet what I’ve just described to you is the English bulldog.”
From tiger poop to CSI: Banteng
Next, Kat chats with Alex Ball, manager of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s WildGenes program, to discuss the ways in which genetics can be used in conservation in order to understand how species are changing and figure out the best ways to help them.
His team has been involved in projects such as stopping wildlife trafficking and poaching through what can best be described as CSI: Banteng, mitigating conflict between animals and humans by sequencing tiger poop for traces of their dinner, monitoring species in the wild in locations ranging from Antarctica to the Scottish Highlands, and maintaining diverse breeding populations in captivity.
The man who made Dolly
Finally, Kat meets Bill Ritchie, the embryologist who carried out the cloning procedure that created Dolly The Sheep – the first mammal cloned from an adult cell – at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh in the 1990s. Ritchie owes his career in research to a surprising event: the installation of a TV transmitter near his Scottish home, which enabled him to watch science programmes on BBC2 and inspired him to take up a degree at the Open University.
Listen to the Genetics Unzipped podcast
Listen to the whole episode and find show notes and a full transcript at GeneticsUnzipped.com.
Genetics Unzipped is the podcast from the UK Genetics Society, presented by award-winning science communicator Dr Kat Arney and produced by First Create the Media. Follow Genetics Unzipped on Twitter @geneticsunzip, and the Genetics Society at @GenSocUK
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