Zooming in on the molecules of life

bob audioBroadcaster: Radio 4

Year: 2018


Duration: 30 mins

URL: https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/clip/120946
also available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09r4c8f

Review by Peter Watson

The remit of Radio 4 series The Life Scientific is to “interview the most fascinating and important scientists alive and find out what makes them tick”. It provides a fascinating mix of biography and science and really helps to get behind what drives researchers to study the things that they do.

In a recent edition host Prof Al-Khalili spoke with pioneer of Cryo-Electron Microscopy (Cryo-EM), Dr Richard Henderson, about his life and work. The interview is very timely as Cryo-EM has undergone a revolution of late and Richard Henderson along with Jacques Dubochet and Joachim Frank were awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for their work on developing Cryo-EM. It also provides a good introduction to the Cryo-EM as a method and offers plenty of history about its development from the early days to the present cutting edge.

As ever, the program started with an exploration of Richard’s early life and education. He describes growing up in the Scottish Borders spending his time in the outdoors exploring and cycling. What comes across strongly is not that Richard Henderson had a clear idea from an early age what he wanted to do but that he enjoyed school and placed great value on his education. After school Richard studied Physics as an undergraduate in Edinburgh and then moved to the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (MRC LMB) in Cambridge in 1973 to study for his PhD. Continue reading


Biomarkers for autism diagnosis?

autismBroadcaster: BBC1

Year: 2018

Genre: Studio interview

Duration: 6 minutes

URL: https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/clip/120039

A six minute interview on BBC Breakfast (19th February 2018) was prompted by the publication of a research article which claims to have identified specific combinations of molecular markers which can speed up the clinical diagnosis of autism. The conversation is an interesting insight into the potential of new techniques for rapid diagnosis of diseases, about experimental design and about experts in different disciplines working together.

Breakfast presenters Dan Walker and Louise Minchin are joined by Dr Naila Rabbani from the University of Warwick, who headed up the research, and Dr James Cusack, Director of Science at Autistica, the UK’s leading autism research charity.  Continue reading

What constitutes “the inner me”? (Horizon)

owen1Broadcaster: BBC2

Year: 2009

Genre: Documentary

URL: https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/clip/101258

Fascinating insights have emerged from recent studies of the brain. This episode of Horizon, first transmitted in 2009, is quite old now. However many of the insights remain highly pertinent and the work of Adrian Owen described in the programme continues to amaze (see also his new book Into The Grey Zone).

I actually wrote about this programme previously over at our sister site Bioethicsbytes, so rather than reiterate the key points here, please follow this link to original post.


Anyone for Gene Editing? (Panorama)

panoramageneediting1Broadcaster: BBC1

Year: 2016

Genre: Documentary

URL: http://bobnational.net/record/421686

In June 2016, BBC current affairs programme Panorama conducted a whistle-stop tour around potential applications of CRISPR, the emerging gene editing technology.

In Medicine’s Big Breakthrough… Editing Your Genes (30 mins), Fergus Walsh talks to a number of key players in the field. These include Jennifer Doudna, credited as one of the co-creators of CRISPR as an editing took, George Church who is looking to humanise pig organs to reduce the likelihood of rejection, and Fyodor Urnov (from Sangamo Biosciences) who is trying to use the technology to tackle diseases such as AIDS and haemophilia. Alison van Eenennaam discusses genetic approaches to making horn-less cattle (which, she argues, is more humane than the current methods for removing existing horns). Walsh also visits biohacking entrepreneur Josiah Zayner, and Kathy Niakan from the Crick Institute who has the UK’s first licence to use CRISPR with human embryos.

The video is good at raising ethical as well as scientific questions. I can see this episode either serving as a very nice introduction to the topic, which students could be asked to watch before a face-to-face teaching session, or alternatively one or more of the vignettes could be used as illustrative clip(s) within a lecture.

A transcript of the programme is available via this link.

transcript from programme

There are a several introductory videos about CRISPR on YouTube. These include one produced by The Royal Society, available via this link. It starts from quite a low level, and so is probably most applicable for a school audience. A second, longer, video produced by Kurzgesagt (German for “in a nutshell”) is available via this link.

Is burnt toast *really* a cancer threat? (News)

toastNew “go for gold” advice from the Food Standards Agency is warning people not to overcook foods such as roast potatoes, chips and toast, as it increases their risk of cancer. The story was widely reported in the press on 23rd January 2017 (e.g. Browned toast and potatoes are ‘potential cancer risk’, say food scientists).

Useful broadcast media coverage includes:

BBC News at One: Is burnt toast a cancer risk?
URL: https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/clip/87866
(2 mins 40)

Channel 4 News: Feeling the burn URL: https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/clip/87907
(3 mins)

Today (BBC Radio 4): Can overdone toast be a cancer risk?
URL: https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/clip/87258
(4 mins 30)

Concern focuses on acrylamide, a chemical that is naturally produced when starchy foods (particularly those rich the amino acid asparagine, such as potatoes and cereals) are cooked at high temperatures (see Mottram et al and Stadler et al for underlying science, which actually dates from 2002). Continue reading

Life Story: Solving the structure of DNA


Watson and Crick discuss whether to tell Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin about their research

Broadcaster: BBC4

Year: 2004
(originally broadcast 1987 on BBC2)

Genre: Dramatisation

Length: 01:46:24

URL: https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/clip/30025
In the late 1980s, Horizon, the BBC’s flagship science series, took the unusual step of producing a feature length retelling of the events of 1951-52 leading to James Watson and Francis Crick solving the structure of DNA.

Inspired by Watson’s memoir The Double Helix, and with a screenplay by  William Nicholson (who later went on to write the script for Gladiator), the production starred Jeff Goldblum as Watson, Tim Pigott-Smith as Crick and Juliet Stevenson as Rosalind Franklin.

A colleague recommends that students watch this on their own as a “flipped teaching” exercise prior to more academic sessions on DNA structure.

The film is known in the USA as “The race for the double helix” and is listed on IMDB under that name. The most recent transmission of this programme pre-dates Box of Broadcasts, and this copy is uploaded from a VHS copy. In consequence, the quality is sub-optimal, but clear enough.

Tackling tuberculosis (Countryfile)

cowtbBroadcaster: BBC1
Year: 2016
Genre: Magazine

URLs: (full episode) https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/prog/0D9D7D7F
Clip 1 (6:43): https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/clip/23517
Clip2 (6:16): https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/clip/23518

The BBC’s rural affairs programme Countryfile (first broadcast on 9th October 2016) looked at ongoing issues with TB infection cattle populations. The topic was covered in two sections. The first focuses on the current tests for TB infection. The second looks more closely at the science being used to develop new tests and better vaccines against TB. Continue reading

Performance enhancing drugs: the dark side of doping


Sprinter Tim Montgomery was the 100 metre world record holder, but was later caught using performance-enhancing drugs and was banned

Broadcaster: Al Jazeera

Year: 2015

Genre: Documentary

URL: http://bobnational.net/record/351053

Review by Ella Yabsley

In this Al Jazeera Investigates documentary, former UK hurdler Liam Collins embarks on an undercover investigation seeking to expose ‘the dark side’ of professional sports; blood doping and the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) by professional athletes. This 16-minute clip splices together key sections of the documentary (The full programme can be seen on YouTube as well as on Box of Broadcasts).

I can take a guy with average genetics and I can make him a world champion. I can with drugs. Oh absolutely.

The documentary stirred controversy, primarily for featuring accusations regarding several NFL footballers,  notably Peyton Manning, who went on to steer his Denver Broncos team to success at Superbowl 50 before announcing his retirement. More importantly, the documentary highlights loopholes in the drug testing regimes of several popular sports. Athletes play a ‘cat and mouse game’ with the testing system; timely drug administration combined with an awareness of testing procedures results in athletes coming up negative in tests. Continue reading

Immunotherapy for Type I Diabetes (News)

peakman1Broadcaster: BBC1
Year: 2016
Genre: News
URL: http://bobnational.net/record/393710

In this three minute clip, Fergus Walsh reports on a trial being conducted at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust (London). The research, led by Prof Mark Peakman, is using a combination of protein fragments (MultiPepT1De) to try and trigger a “protective” immune response, rather than the inappropriate antibody production against islet cells that underlies Type 1 diabetes.

This link includes a video by Prof Peakman introducing the biochemistry of Type I diabetes and the basis of their research (5 mins). See also this article by Peakman on the principles behind the new approach.

The same news item is currently also available on the BBC news website.

COPD & smoking (Sunrise)

add caption

COPD is linked to smoking

Broadcaster: Sky News

Year: 2015

Genre: News

URL: http://bobnational.net/record/344414

Review by Ella Yabsley

The 2.5 minute clip from Sky News breakfast programme Sunrise is a good scene-setter, providing examples of how chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) affects the physical stamina of individuals. Broadcast at the end of December, it is timed to influence people considering giving up smoking as a new year’s resolution. The clip includes coverage of Olympic athlete Iwan Thomas climbing the stairs whilst wearing a restrictive mask that mimics the effects of COPD.

Each year, around 25,000 people in the UK die from COPD. COPD is an umbrella term for emphysema, chronic bronchitis and other chronic obstructive airways diseases that affect the respiratory system (principally, the lungs). The report highlights smoking as a major risk factor for COPD development; increases in smoking directly correlates with more severe COPD symptoms. In addition to 25,000 people per annum dying from COPD, it is estimated that a further 3 million people in the UK are living with the condition.

“To start with it’s often just a smoker’s cough with some phlegm at the back of the throat. People write it off and say “oh, that’s normal”; but it inexorably goes downhill so that they get so bad that they’re short of breath all the time” – Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer for England

For an up to date review on early COPD and risk factors please see this article published by The Lancet.