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Podcast Review: Ingenious

26 July 2021
Appeared in BioNews 1105

The jargon-free BBC4 genetics podcast series, Ingenious, exposes the history and future of research into a selection of genes. Presented by Dr Kat Arney, each of the ten available episodes covers a particular gene, or genetic mutation, responsible for crucial areas of development and disease.

The Omnibus Edition is a gentle hour-long edition of the podcast, bringing together four of Dr Arney's favourite episodes from the first series. Starting close to home for Dr Arney, with the redhead gene, the topic is introduced with a little on what red hair has meant for humans through history. Dispelling the myth that redheads will die out within the next hundred years – we breathe a sigh of relief and get to wonder whether the colour of your hair says something about your pain tolerance, with the help of some spice-loving mice.

Dr Arney moves on to the less trivial BRCA genetic mutations, which can increase the risk of breast, ovarian and prestate cancers in those affected, and can have significant further repercussions for relatives. Dr Arney talks to Caitlin Brodnick, author of Dangerous Boobies: Breaking Up with My Time-Bomb Breasts, about the choice to have a genetic test to check for the BRCA1 mutation after so many of her family members died with similar cancers. Brodnick discusses frankly, after initially wanting to reject the test, how she decided over a difficult three-year period what to do with the confirmation of her significant breast cancer risk.

A lighter topic next, with the opportunity to discuss whether flatulence issues really curb birth rates – the milkshake gene, or dairy intolerance. I was surprised to find that I knew only a small part of the story of lactose intolerance, both the science and the story of human evolution. In the UK, we take our dairy consumption for granted, treating lactose intolerance as if it was a genetic fault, when it is in fact those of us with a gene mutation who can happily consume milk after infancy and childhood in the first place.

As a researcher in biomedical engineering, overlapping a little with the genetics field, I was pleasantly surprised by the focus of Ingenious on the story of discovery of the science. Particularly as the stories are often interwoven with interviews with researchers involved in the discoveries, such as Dr Bob Riddle in the Cyclops Gene episode, the final feature of the Omnibus Edition.

The curiously named Sonic Hedgehog (Shh) gene, responsible both for 'cyclops' lambs in Idaho and six toed cats in Florida, was named by Dr Riddle and his colleagues – with the help of his wife and a copy of a gaming magazine. Upon discovering that the already discovered hedgehog (hh) gene in fact corresponded to three distinct genes in humans, three variations of names were required: one of which was christened Sonic Hedgehog and became the most notorious of the bunch, though not just because of the name.

With 15 minutes per topic, and an emphasis on storytelling, the science is limited to the main headlines. For me, this made it a great podcast choice for the times you want to learn something new, but don't have quite the concentration span for something denser. Living up to her jargon-free claim, Dr Arney does well to deliver easily digestible chunks of science to a broad audience, made more attractive by a well-selected range of interview guests.

For a more thorough look at some of the topics covered, we can look to another of Dr Arney's podcasts at Genetics Unzipped, The Genetics Society podcast. A recent episode of Genetics Unzipped, about recent advances in genomics, was reviewed in BioNews 1097. Dr Arney has also covered the infamous Sonic Hedgehog gene in a more detailed 30 minute episode. This perhaps indicates that the target audience of Ingenious is unlikely to be serial listeners of other genetics-specifics podcasts. Indeed, the shorter format of Ingenious enables listeners to get a broad introduction to the world of genetics and genetics research, which makes it well-suited to those less familiar with this area.

Dr Arney's firm scientific background in genetics, together with informed guests often at the forefront of genetics research, give you confidence in a balanced view when considering the current limits of knowledge and possible future developments. Cheeringly, even the breast cancer BRCA genes are discussed in the context of exciting genetics research to inform new targeted cancer treatments. I look forward to being further entertained with stories of science discovery when I catch up with the newly aired second series – next up is the Fat Gene.

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