The snapdragon's tale

14 November 2017

Interview with 

Enrico Coen, John Innes Centre, Norwich

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Every year the Genetics Society awards a number of prizes to outstanding researchers. The JBS Haldane prize recognises an individual for outstanding ability to communicate topical subjects in genetics research to an interested lay audience, and this year’s winner is Professor Enrico Coen from the John Innes Centre in Norwich. He’ll give his prize lecture on the 21st of November in the hallowed red velvet lecture theatre of the Royal Institution in central London. It’s open to the public and tickets are on sale now. Kat Arney caught up with Enrico ahead of his talk, and asked him why Haldane - a brilliant evolutionary biologist and geneticist - is such a great icon for science communication.

Enrico - Haldane was a fantastic scientist and communicator. He had great ideas about the theory of genetics and how he might develop that theory, and also an appreciation of experiments. But he also communicated it to a very broad audience. He wrote several popular science books, wrote articles about science, and I think he was just generally fascinated by the challenge of how you can relate complicated ideas to a broad audience.

Kat - But why do you think it’s important to actually communicate genetics, communicate science to the public? You know, it’s hard stuff. why do people need to know about this?

Enrico - Science is just one of the most amazing things that we’re able to appreciate and it’s part of our world. It’s part of how the world works. It’s part of the fascination with how things are. I think it’s just our duty in a way to try and share what we’ve discovered about that world.

Kat - So in terms of your own work, what is your passion? What is your genetic interest?

Enrico - One is to do with the development of shapes and forms and how is it that a group of cells, a small group of cells in an embryo, or in a bud of a flower can turn themselves on their own into amazing structures. Not just humans but plants, flowers with amazing shapes, leaves with all sorts of different contortions.

How does that happen because nobody is telling the plant how to do that? The plant has to do that somehow on its own. So, when you put a seed into the garden and that turns itself into a daisy or a rose, how does that work?

The other thing is the historical question – how did that variety of forms arise? How did it evolve? What were the factors, the forces in evolution that led to this diversity of different shapes and forms, and colours that we see when we look out in our garden? So both of those aspects fascinate me – both the development of structures and how they’ve evolved overtime.

Kat - You'll be doing your JBS Haldane lecture. What will you be talking about? Give me a little run through, a sneak peek of what people can expect.

Enrico - So, I’ll begin by really asking the audience to imagine they're a Martian landing on Earth and trying to make sense of the amazing things that humans have made.

So suppose you went around and did see things like cars. One of the first things you might think about is how humans have made things that seem to be tailored to their environment. Cars have wheels so they can go efficiently on roads. Boats have hulls so they can float in the water. Snow mobiles have skis to steer them. So everything seems to be adapted to its environment.

But then if you look a bit more closely, what you see is actually there's lots of things that humans make that aren't – strictly speaking – related to adaptations. For example, in some countries you find people drive in the left. In another country, the people drive on the right. That’s not to do with adaptation to local conditions. There's something else going on there. So what's that about? There's some historical process that’s somehow creating boundaries and differences between these different countries.

And in the same way, what I try and convey in my talk is how, when in a sense we’re Martians, when we’re trying to understand how biology works, we want to make sense of all these different biological forms that we find – plants or animals or microbes.

What I want to talk about is how we’re discovering all these processes really in a way that we’d never appreciated before, the advances we’ve made in being able to study genes. It’s now possible to sequence genomes, entire genomes very quickly and that’s revolutionising the way we look at organisms and it’s showing us this historical component that we only have a sort of hint of previously and it’s now being revealed for the first time.

Kat - If JBS Haldane was alive today and he could see the genetic revolution, all the information we have, what do you think he would say? What would be really blowing his mind today?

Enrico - I think what would blow his mind is the fusion that’s happened between people who study gene functions and people who study populations. Because one of Haldane’s great contributions was the idea that genetic variation should be studied not just in terms of small families but whole populations, thinking about the frequencies, or the rates at which mutations happen in the population as a whole.

And because we can now sequence genomes and discover their structure across lots of different individuals, first of all, he'd be amazed if that’s possible at all to be able to sequence an entire genome and understand the genetic code. But also, I think he would struck by the fact that we can now look at populations in a totally new way. We can look at variation across a whole population of individuals and appreciate how that variation is behaving.

Kat - In the work that you do studying particularly plants, are there any that you really think, “Wow! Look at them. How on Earth did they get like that?”

Enrico - I suppose the scientific love of my life are snapdragons. About 100 years ago, snapdragons were actually the best understood plant in terms of its genes than any other plant. They fell out of fashion for a while, largely because you can't eat snapdragons. I mean, they're not very tasty things to eat, but they were very good for studying genes.

So really, over the last 30 odd years, I’ve worked consistently on these plants trying to understand how their patterns and forms generated and they’ve been remarkably sort of fruitful.

Kat - Do you grow them in your own garden?

Enrico - Yes. We have some in our garden and I always look at them in a slightly different way perhaps than I would look at all the other flowers in the garden. They're my friends. I know them very well. I know the variations that I see. Instantly, I can tell that’s that gene that’s segregating, that variant between one snapdragon and another. So yes, they're like familiar friends that live with me.

Kat - Enrico Coen from the John Innes Centre in Norwich. And you can buy tickets now for his award lecture on Tuesday 21st november, starting at 7pm at the Royal Institution - tickets available from the RI website.

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