In the latest episode of Genetics Unzipped, presenter Dr Kat Arney is squelching through the Californian mud, swimming with platypuses, bearing witness to daylight robbery and even finding time to catch an episode of Star Trek as she looks back on some of the most mind-blowing stories from the world of genetics in 2021.
We meet the Borgs – huge genetic elements in Methanoperedens microbes that can assimilate genes from their neighbours, discovered in a pile of mud. And we discover how whitefly pulled off a genetic theft that enabled them to become one of the world’s most destructive agricultural pests, by stealing the BtPMaT1 gene from a plant some time back in their evolutionary history.
We also hear how researchers are developing mirror-image DNA polymerases that can make left-handed L-DNA – perfect for long-term, stable data storage, or even making an entirely mirror-image cell in one day. They’ve used their mirror genetic technology to encode a message from the great scientist Louis Pasteur musing on the asymmetrical natural world:
“And, consequently, if the mysterious influence to which the asymmetry of natural products is due should change its sense or direction, the constitutive elements of all living beings would assume the opposite symmetry. Perhaps a new world would present itself to our view. Who could foresee the organization of living things if cellulose, right as it is, became left? If the albumen of the blood, now left, became right? These are mysteries which furnish much work for the future, and demand henceforth the most serious consideration from science.”
Then, there’s the strange discovery that hundreds of viruses use a DNA base called 2-aminoadenine, known as Z, instead of the usual adenine (A), with big implications for our understanding of the genetic code as we know it. There may be many more examples of base substitutions in nature that haven’t been discovered yet because standard genetic sequencing doesn’t identify them.
Finally, we take a dive into the duck-billed platypus genome, to discover what these mysterious monotremes can teach us about mammalian evolution.
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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