Reproduction (Dara O Briain’s Science Club)

The programme includes an engaging animated history of our understanding of inheritance

The programme includes an engaging animated history of our understanding of inheritance

Broadcaster: BBC 2

Year: 2012

Genre: Magazine show


Review by Amy Evans

In 2012 well-known comedian (and theoretical physics graduate) Dara Ó Briain launched his eponymous Science Club. This first episode of season 1 focuses on reproduction and inheritance, including the importance of bicycles to human development. Although the show’s approach is light-hearted and humorous, there is actually a lot of information given about genetics and key speakers, such as leading geneticist Steve Jones, are involved so that the information given is up to date (at the time of showing). The show is aimed at viewers who have a relatively basic initial knowledge, but elements of it might be good to watch as a re-cap when starting new modules.

Highlights include:

A brief history of genetics (2:46, starting at 02:23, see this clip) a nice animation, summarising our understanding of inheritance from Aristotle via van Leeuwenhoek, Bakewell, Mendel and Morgan and ending with elucidation of the double helix by Watson and Crick.

Does sex work? An interview with Professor Steve Jones.  Ó Briain and Jones discuss the inefficiencies of sexual reproduction, especially from the female perspective. Jones argues that invention of the bicycle is the most important step in human evolution, because it allowed intermingling of the gene pools with residents of the next village. Now, across the world, we are becoming much less isolated genetically. After a consideration of the history of the bicycle, they return to discussing the importance of genetic diversity. Generally speaking the marital distance, that is the geographical distance between the birthplace of partners relative to the distance between the birthplaces of their respective parents, gets greater generation by generation. Jones explains that genetic health may improve as we are less likely to encounter recessive mutations common within a subpopulation (for example, if you want to avoid having a child with cystic fibrosis breed with someone from Nigeria).

How much DNA do we share with other species? A 1:12 clip (see here) which show the average number of genes in different organisms from simple bacteria to tomatoes and water fleas… via humans! Jones does add the caveat that the definition of a gene has become more complex than it was.

What has decoding the human genome ever done for us? Alok Jha asks what use the human genome project (HGP) has been in the real world? He interviews Sir John Sulston, who headed up the UK end of the HGP, who disputes claims that the impact was hyped. He also talks to Steve Rose who argued that the project was oversold in order to secure funding. However, it does seem that the value of genomics for human medicine IS now starting to be realised. Wellcome Trust scientist Mike Stratton explains the value of looking at multiple genomes and later Jones picks up the example of colon cancer. The relevant clip (8:42 in length) is available via this link.

DNA extraction Although this has become a staple of many school genetics practicals, and outreach sessions, the programme also shows how to extract DNA using household ingredients. They start with cheek cells and use a cocktail of pineapple juice, vodka and washing up liquid to extract the DNA (see here).

Neanderthals Comedian Ed Burns talks to Chris Stringer, an expert on human origins. Modern understanding has it that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens are divergent species that could interbreed (we probably have a bit of neanderthal in all of us). Burns advocates the 23andMe service for seeing how neanderthal you are (though the value of this might be questioned). He also gets into the question What is a species? with Professor Mark Thomas. Clip available via this link.

Epigenetics The human genome project revealed we had rather fewer genes than expected. This discovery has shed more light on the importance of epigenetics.  Research showing the influence of diet on agouti mice is shown, as well as the effect of exercise on methylation of human DNA; switching off certain genes. This suggesting we might have more capacity than we previously realised to change our health and those of our children, and beyond. For this section (9:40) see this link.


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