Why should sterile termites work so hard for the good of the colony?
Broadcaster: BBC 4
Review by Will Channell
What Darwin Didn’t Know (90 mins) is a BBC Four documentary presented by Armand Marie Leroi, Professor of Evolutionary and Developmental Biology at Imperial College, London. The 90 minute show looks at how over the past 150 years ‘Darwinian evolution’ has become a bedrock of evolutionary biology, despite changing rather dramatically since Darwin’s original theories in On the Origin of the Species.
The programme has two dimensions; a look back to Darwin and the origins of his theory, and then at the application of the revised theory in contemporary research. The programme manages to introduce complex topics and demonstrate them in ways any viewer can understand. The content is applicable up to and including undergraduates. Continue reading
Selective breeding of foxes over the past 50 years has been used to produce foxes that are especially tame, and especially aggressive
Broadcaster: BBC 2
Review by Dr Steve Maw (University of Leeds)
This 8.5 minute clip is taken from Horizon: The Secret Life of Dogs and gives an overview of a long-term breeding experiment of Silver foxes in Siberia. The clip demonstrates some of the extraordinary changes that simple selective breeding (in this case for non-aggression) can make over a few generations and as such provides a model of how domestication may have taken place. It also highlights some of the side effects of this breeding programme (e.g. colour changes) which show remarkable similarity to some domestic dog characteristics.
As well as natural section I also teach artificial selection. There are a number of discussion points that can potentially come out of the clip. Firstly the power of simple selective breeding and that not all changes are due to GM! Secondly it illustrates that these genes are already in the population. As some foetuses were swapped reference can also be made to the nature v nurture argument. I think it also could be used to in ethical discussions.
WARNING: There is a word of caution, however, as the foxes are kept in conditions people may find distressing.
Notice that the side of the chameleon nearest the sun goes dark, whilst the other side is white
Broadcaster: BBC 1
Reviewed by Dr Steve Maw (University of Leeds)
This short clip (1 min 20 seconds) taken from the BBC series Life features the Namaqua Chameleon. At first sight a chameleon is an odd creature to find in the desert and that’s exactly the point. The clip is a good visual example of how species are adapted to their environment and here the chameleon’s colour-changing ability is used to good effect.
I use this clip within a more general discussion of homeostasis and so the Namaqua Chameleon is one example in series of behavioural, physiological and physical adaptions to maintain body temperature (the Warm up – Marine Iguana is another one I use). So I ask questions like ‘why is the chameleon black in the morning and grey later on in the day?’ which leads on to some physics and further discussion of external regulation of body temperature.
Research led by Roy Kishony uses a “morbidostat” to deliberately develop antibiotic resistant bacteria
Broadcaster: BBC 2
Review by Josh Sutton
Antibiotic resistance in bacteria is currently one of the largest problems facing modern medicine. The rise in cases of multiple drug resistance tuberculosis (MDR-TB) and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) are only the best-known examples of a wider issue. In this Horizon documentary from 2012, the increasing threat of antibiotic resistance is covered, as well as reflections on the new treatments and drugs that scientists are developing to combat the growing resistance threat.
The importance of antibiotic resistance is immediately highlighted in the programme, with the story of a soldier put into a critical condition after his legs were blown off. His perilous state was actually due to an infection with antibiotic-resistant bacteria he went on to develop: MRSA, Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Acinetobacter baumannii. This infection could only be treated with antibiotics of last resort, which were toxic to both the bacteria and the soldier himself. Continue reading
Broadcaster: BBC Radio 4
Genre: Radio, Discussion
This episode of the regular Radio 4 programme Start the Week (45 mins) has an unusually biological focus. The studio guests are all authors of books or poems about biological matters.
- Nick Lane (UCL) is author of several popular science books, including Life Ascending and the new The Vital Question: Why is life the way it is? Amongst other things, he discusses the importance of singular event – eukaryotic cell engulfing bacteria cell that became mitochondria – in the development of complex life.
- Helen Scales has a particular interest in molluscs. She discusses their versatility and offers insights into organisms that live on hydrothermal vents. Her second book Spirals in Time (about shells) is published shortly.
- Luke Rendell (St Andrews) is author of The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins. He discusses the social life of ocean going mammals.
- Poet Laureate Andrew Motion has had a poem about seahorses commissioned by London Zoo. He notes that they are often killed accidentally, but are also sought after by practitioners of alternative medicines. They also, it is noted, have the “bad luck of looking beautiful when dead”.
The programme finishes with an interesting brief discussion on the importance of language use in science, particularly the attractions and danger of metaphor. Metaphor can bring to life notions that it is hard for people to follow (Lane notes that most biochemistry, for example, is too small to see). and science. Motion acknowledges the inherent tension in marrying the language of hard science with lyric poetry, which Shelley had observed is “vitally metaphoric”. Even the fact that we term a group of whales a “school” is value-laden. The suggestion is made that there is a “sweet spot” in the appropriate use of metaphor such that it adds value without becoming a limit to enquiry.
This is not a programme that you would want to sit a class down to listen to together, but it would be a valuable 45 minutes for A level or undergraduate students interested in science communication.