Best of NG - Making music, mice rage

03 January 2016

Interview with

Nell Barrie

Kat - As well as bringing you interviews with the some of the most fun and fascinating genetics researchers around the world, I'm always keeping an eye on the latest news from the lab. And although it's a few years old now, this news chat with Nell Barrie, from back in July 2012, still makes me smile.

Nell -   First one that we thought was exciting was a really interesting study looking at the evolution of music and this was published in the PNAS and it was led by Robert MacCallum and Armand LeRoi from Imperial College and what they've done is essentially, they've got some random sections of - I guess you wouldn't even call it music - just notes, random notes put together. 

And they're getting people to select them on the basis of what they like to hear, what sounds the most pleasant and then they're getting these little selected bits of music to mate together and make babies, and make new music by just randomly combining bits in the tune and they're going to see if that can lead to music evolving over time which is very interesting.

Kat -   So, we can listen to a bit of this.  So, we've got some of the tracks, the Darwin tunes as they're called.  So here's the first track ' Generation Zero.  So, these are just randomly generated noises' And here, we have them after about 400 generations... And now, here after about 1,200 generations, quite like the sound of this one... And finally, after about 5,500 generations, so these are really quite long and developed now' Do you think this is really natural selection and evolution though?

Nell -   I think it's really interesting model, I guess, but it's not really the way that natural selection and evolution works with animals and organisms because you're basing the selection on one very specific criteria which is whether the particular person listening to it actually likes it and in reality, if you're looking at an animal in its environment, there's all kinds of other things that will act to select whether it fits that environment or not I suppose.  And also, this isn't really over a long period of time because you normally look at how the environment changes over time, what does that do to the organisms within it.

Kat -   Exactly, it's a very split second thing ' do I like this?  Do I not? ' I think quite interestingly, they're all very major, quite bland really.  I think if this is the future of music, I'm not sure about this.

Nell -   No, it definitely sounds kind of like something out of Pacman maybe and I mean, I like it from that point of view and it does sound like real music I suppose, but it's not ' yeah, it's not going to set the world on fire any time soon.

Kat -   Something that may ' well, set something on fire is a story that I saw in the journal of Neuroscience.  This is from Marco Bortolato at the University of Southern California and this is looking at the genetics of rage.  This is an absolutely fascinating story.  What are the researchers been up to here?

Nell -   Yeah, I really like this one because I can definitely identify with extreme rage at some points in my life.

Kat -   You look so calm and peaceful all the time.

Nell -   No, I definitely have that feeling occasionally where you just kind of snap and you get really mad.  And perhaps, this is telling us a little bit about what might be happening in the brain especially in people, perhaps you have a real problem with controlling that rage and just can't manage to control it at all.  By looking at a specific receptor which they think might be malfunctioning and over functioning perhaps in people who are very hostile, and they've looked in mice.  So, this is really early stage stuff, but they found this receptor is faulty in mice that are very, very hostile and they think that this could have something to do with the same process in humans perhaps.  So, maybe there could be a way we could fix the function of that receptor, return it to normal, and could that help us treat people who have rage problems maybe? 

Kat - You know, we're not talking about people who like you, just get a bit of a strop on...

Nell - No, just getting a little angry is more like kind of serious problem with rage, isn't it?  The other thing that struck me reading this is it's one of those studies where you're looking at a tiny part of what the brain does.  And it's really interesting and it's telling you something but it really needs to be part of the whole thing, and when you're looking at things like behaviour, it's usually not simple as switching one thing on and off, and switching that behaviour on and off because there's so many different aspects to it, and they talk about risk factors as well. 

So the way you're brought up, the kind of environment you live in when you were a child has a big effect on the type of rage response you might have to things.  So, that really got to be taken into account as well, so it's really early days.  But it's interesting to see how these things are similar in mice and humans I think.

Kat - I'd like to see a mouse with rage - eek!!

Nell - you can see videos of angry rats on the internet that I've seen.  They've done some selective breeding and you get really, really angry rats who just attack people just on sight.

Kat -   More than angry birds who just attack pigs.

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