Alison Woollard - Genetic revolutions

07 November 2015

Interview with

Alison Wollard, University of Oxford

Kat - Every year the Genetics Society recognises a person with an outstanding ability to communicate genetics through the JBS Haldane lecture and award. This year's winner is Professor Alison Woollard from Oxford University, whose work focuses on the genetics of ageing, using nematode worms as a model. She gave her lecture at the beginning of November at the Royal Institution, focusing on key revolutions in genetic thinking. I caught up with her afterwards to find out more about Haldane himself, and her revolutionary ideas. 

Alison - JBS Haldane was a very interesting scientist who was working in the UK in the 1930s and '40s, and '50s, and beyond actually. He was fascinated in population genetics. He was very interested in how to relate Mendel's ideas of heredity into whole populations and he applied maths to work that out. He was one of the real proponents of the importance of quantitative analysis in biology.

Kat - He was also kind of quite cool. He was very into debating about ideas and talking about them.

Alison - Yeah, he was amazing. People say that JBS Haldane was the best read of all scientists of his age. And then people say that in order to become the best read of all scientists of his age, he only had to read his own work because he was so prolific.

Kat - He was kind of a bit of a hippie as well. I love reading about him. He's my favourite, I think.

Alison - Yeah. He's like everyone's favourite granddad I think. He was very left wing, he was a Marxist, he was a great socialist. He believed in equality, he was a great believer in the welfare state. He was a great believer and passionate about education at all levels, and how education is a great liberator. He had weird and wacky ideas about all manner of things. He spent a lot of time in India on the hippie trail and wrote some fascinating books about his experiences there, and many other things besides.

Kat - But moving from JBS Haldane to you, you've just delivered the JBS Haldane lecture. Tell me about what you were trying to get across in the talk today?

Alison - Haldane was very well-known for his skills in public communication and so, the Haldane lecture of the Genetic Society is a public lecture where we try to bring genetic ideas to a very wide audience. My sort of take on this was to really think about genetics as revolutionary because I think Haldane was a revolutionary. And so, I wanted to have this idea of revolution in my lecture. And so, I decided I would pick on what I considered to be the most important revolutions in genetics. I was probably a little bit ambitious because I started in 400 BC and ended up in the future. That struck me as a problem when I was desperately trying to finish this last week. But nevertheless, I sort of tried to pick out the most important revolution in terms of genetic ideas that have happened, really starting with Mendel and then moving on from that.

Kat - You had 7 revolutionary ideas. Tell me about some of them.

Alison - Well, there was Mendel's Principles of Heredity. Mendel proposed a mechanism for heredity that was missing from Darwin's Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. So, that was really, really important. And then we have the idea of relating these hereditary principles to actual tangible things in cells i.e. the behaviour of chromosomes. And that was the third big revolution. That's what Thomas Hunt Morgan was really involved in.

Kat - That's all the fruit fly guys - the fly guys.

Alison - The fly guys, lots of fly stuff, great fly stuff. And then after that sort of came the molecular biology revolution. So, all the guys, Watson and Crick, but all the people before him that showed that DNA is the hereditary material, and then that came after him that showed how gene expression works, how genes can be switched on and off. There was such a lot of molecular biology that went on it. It was an absolute ferment in the 1940s and the 1950s, and into the '60s. The molecular revolution I think is massive. And then after that, people understood the mechanism of heredity and how that works even at the level of molecules, but they didn't understand the rest of biology. And so, people started to use genetic techniques to understand other things in biology like cell division and development, how cells end up in the right place doing the right thing, what differentiates one cell from another. And so, that was a really important thing.

Kat - And then we get to the genome, the era of genomics.

Alison - Yeah, absolutely. So, that's very late 20th century, 21st century idea that you can sequence whole genomes and then you can understand the entire genetic makeup of an organism, and really drill down into what it is that distinguishes one organism from another and what distinguishes one disease from another within an organism. And so, we're in a really new era now of understanding genomes and also are beginning to manipulate them. So, that's my last revolution. It was genome editing. This idea that we can now interfere, modify our genetic destiny, and thinking about whether or not that's a good thing, or a bad thing, or an inevitable thing, whether it's a good way of eradicating disease or whether it's dangerous. It might lead to designer babies and so on. So I think people need to understand the science behind those kinds of ideas if they're to contribute to the debate about whether or not it should happen in the future.

Kat - Alison Woollard from Oxford University - this year's Genetics Society JBS Haldane lecturer.

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