Matchmaking at the zoo

14 November 2017
Presented by Kat Arney.



This month we’re off to ZSL London Zoo to meet some lovelorn laughing thrushes, endangered snails, and the Cilla Black of Sumatran Tigers. Plus, a sneak preview of this year’s Genetics Society JBS Haldane lecture, and a gene of the month that likes a tipple. This is the Naked Genetics podcast for November 2017, brought to you in association with The Genetics Society.

In this episode

Blue Crowned laughing thrush

01:05 - Top birds

Can we save the blue-crowned laughing thrush?

Top birds
with Laura Gardner, ZSL London Zoo

Earlier this month Kat Arney took a trip to London zoo. It wasn’t purely for fun - she was there to meet some of the team at ZSL London Zoo who are responsible for protecting and conserving species that are critically endangered in the wild. It’s a vital part of ZSL’s work, but - as she discovered when she started her visit in the tropical birdhouse - it’s not quite as simple as just sticking some animals together and letting nature take its course. There’s quite a lot of genetics to take into account too, as Laura Gardner explained.

Tiger and cubs

07:14 - The Cilla Black of tigers

Matchmaking tigers is a tricky genetic job.

The Cilla Black of tigers
with Jo Cook, ZSL London Zoo

Once Kat Arney escaped from the delightfully relaxing bird pavilion, she went off to the other side of London Zoo in search of larger prey - or rather, predators. She chatted with Jo Cook, from ZSL London Zoo, about tiger dating and what population management actually means for a species like the Sumatran tiger.

Partula snails

13:23 - Saving snails

It's not just the big mammals that need saving - snails do too!

Saving snails
with Dave Clarke, ZSL London Zoo

When we think about conserving wildlife, you probably think of the big stuff - pandas, tigers, elephants and other endangered mammals. But, as Dave Clarke - head of invertebrates at ZSL London Zoo - told Kat Arney, the truly endangered animals are at the other end of the scale.

Tiger in a zoo

19:32 - Small is beautiful

Saving small populations is a big genetic challenge

Small is beautiful
with John Ewen, ZSL London Zoo

All of the species Kat Arney met in ZSL London Zoo - the blue-crowned laughing thrushes, the Sumatran tigers and the Partula snails - are small groups on the brink of extinction. That poses some significant genetic problems for conservationists, as she discovered when she called up John Ewen, ZSL’s expert on saving small populations.


24:47 - The snapdragon's tale

Fascinating flowers at this year's JBS Haldane lecture.

The snapdragon's tale
with Enrico Coen, John Innes Centre, Norwich

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.

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.


32:21 - Gene of the Month - Happy Hour

Our Gene of the Month is in the pub already.

Gene of the Month - Happy Hour

And finally, it’s time for our gene of the month, and this time it’s Happy Hour.

If you’re anything like me, the only way to get through the dark nights of winter - not to mention the endless torrent of terrible global news - is to get drunk. But the difference between passing out after a single shot or only getting blotto after a whole bottle might be in your genes - at least, if you’re a fruit fly.

The Happy Hour gene was discovered in 2009 by researchers who took a bunch of fruit flies, plied them with alcohol, then looked for mutations that meant the flies stayed standing long after their regular comrades had keeled over drunk. These hardened insect boozers turned out to have a mutation in a gene involved in sending signals inside cells - making a type of enzyme known as a kinase. The Happy Hour gene normally works as part of the EGFR signalling pathway, which is involved in a huge range of fundamental biological processes including telling cells when to divide. Unsurprisingly, faults in EGFR signalling are linked to cancer but in the case of alcohol consumption, Happy Hour seems to be playing a role in the part of the fly brain that responds to  the chemical dopamine, which helps to control pleasure and reward.

Intriguingly, when the researchers gave normal flies a cancer drug that blocked EGFR signalling, they got knocked out by alcohol a lot faster than those who hadn’t taken the treatment. The same effect worked in mice and rats, eventually putting them off booze altogether, suggesting that this could potentially be a way to treat alcoholism in humans by making the unpleasant effects of alcohol kick in quicker.

Happy Hour isn’t the only fruit fly gene associated with alcohol metabolism. The same lab also discovered Cheapdate - flies with a mutation in this gene are super-sensitive to alcohol, the opposite to Happy Hour. The team also found a gene they called Hangover, which helps fruit flies become tolerant to alcohol over time. It’s unknown whether flies with a mutation in their Hangover gene can be found slumped in front of the TV on a Sunday morning, muttering “please just be quiet and bring me a bacon sandwich.”

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