I have been a volunteer for the Progress Educational Trust, the charity that publishes BioNews, for over two years now. I love volunteering for them (and have not been paid to say that!) but writing for BioNews can sometimes pose a challenge as my background is in law rather than science. I often find myself resorting to BioNews' invaluable (again, no payment received) glossary for explanations of certain scientific terms.
So when BioNews asked me to review two of the Pulse-Project's podcasts explaining genetics and evolutionary genetics, I jumped at the chance. It looked like a welcome opportunity to expand my limited scientific knowledge.
The Pulse-Project is a website that offers a wide range of freely accessible audio and video lectures on the sciences and medical humanities. Part of their website provides ‘Expert Explanations'. These are four- to eight-minute long podcasts by senior researchers who provide introductions to key terms and theories in their specialist fields.
The podcast on evolutionary genetics is narrated by Professor John Brookfield, a population geneticist and professor of evolutionary genetics at the University of Nottingham, UK.
Professor Brookfield begins by explaining the connection between Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, and evolutionary genetics. This explanation, although full of scientific terms that I had never heard before - 'organism fitness', 'allele' - was nonetheless easy to follow. The podcast proceeds methodically so that listeners aren't swamped with too much information at any one time.
Professor Brookfield's discussion of neutral mutations — changes in the gene code that have no effect on an organism's fitness — was particularly eloquent. He describes how neutral mutations provide clues on the relationships between organisms, and can even help estimate the previous population size of the world.
He also talks about a new area of evolutionary genetics: evolution of development, or 'evo-devo'. In evo-devo, scientists compare the developmental processes of organisms in order to determine their ancestral relationships and discover how these developmental processes evolved.
The second podcast I listened to was on genetics and given by Professor Sir Walter Bodmer, who heads the Cancer and Immunogenetics laboratory at the Weatherall Institute at Oxford University.
Professor Bodmer begins by explaining not only the origin of genetics as a science, but also the origin of the word 'genetics'. This was fascinating; I'd never really thought much about the history of genetics before, much less the etymology.
After this, Professor Bodmer goes on to explain what the 'physiology of inheritance' means. It was at that point that I began to remember my GCSE science classes on genetics, all those years ago. He gives the classic example of genetic determination of eye colour to illustrate how genetics works at a basic level. This leads into discussion of the genetic code which determines so much about who we are and I start to realise how fascinating and amazing this area of science is.
The podcast concludes with an explanation of the relationship between genetics and disease. Professor Bodmer uses cancer as example, describing the genetic changes that occur in cancer cells; why these changes occur; and whether all this information can be used to detect cancer earlier and indicate more effective treatment options.
Both these podcasts increased my understanding of genetics and I found them very enjoyable to listen to. I'll be bookmarking Pulse-Project in my web browser, and future visits will no doubt boost my belated scientific education.