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Podcast Review: The World of Top (Genetics) Models

18 June 2012
Appeared in BioNews 661

The World of Top (Genetics) Models

Naked Genetics, Monday 14 May 2012

Presented by Dr Kat Arney

'The World of Top (Genetics) Models', Naked Genetics, Monday 14 May 2012

The top models featured in the latest Naked Genetics podcast are not the kind that grace the runway – they're the ones that grace our laboratories, providing valuable clues about conditions like Alzheimer's, viral infections and plant diseases.

After a brief introduction by Dr Kat Arney, the podcast starts off with an interview with Professor Jonathan Hodgkin of the University of Oxford on the use of the nematode worm, just one of the model organisms that have transformed our understanding of genetics. With a completely transparent, millimetre-long body, a very fast growth rate, the ability to survive for long periods when stored at -80C and parallels with the human nervous system, the worm is a favourite among scientists.

Along the way, research on this organism has thrown up many surprise discoveries. For example, the discovery of apoptosis - a mechanism of cell suicide that is critical in the development of an embryo - and the role of a particular kind of RNA in turning genes on and off, which may help solve the puzzle of how cancer develops, and has the potential to act as a gene therapy to control viral infections.

Professor Hodgkins' laboratory is currently using the worms to study the effect of drugs on diseases like Alzheimer's by manipulating their genes to manifest similar biochemical symptoms to those seen in a human with the disease. As the worms are small in size and easy to grow, they can be used to screen several hundred drugs in a short space of time to determine if any have the potential to halt or cure the disease.

After this there was a brief break in model organism discussion for Nell Barrie to give an overview of the top genetics stories of the month. We heard about how polar bears evolved to be different from brown bears and why researchers need to rethink their theories on how pigeons find their way back home. This to me was the most interesting: it turns out that the iron-rich cells in the upper beaks of pigeons are, contrary to popular belief, not magnetosensitive neurons, but macrophages - a type of white-blood cell.

After these highlights we go back to the main topic, with interviews with two geneticists. Dr Sean Cutler of UC Riverside talks about the use of thale cress (Arabidopsis) as a model plant to understand the impact of climate change on plant productivity, and in developing plant variants that can withstand conditions of extreme drought or floods. He describes the use of chemicals to disrupt biochemical pathways, rather than the classical route of mutations genes, which is adopted in most genetic studies.

The second interview is with Dr Tanya Whitfield of the University of Sheffield, who talks about how zebrafish embryos are used as models to understand the development of the inner ear in humans. Abnormal amounts of protein secreted by faulty genes in the embryo can act as genetic markers, and drug screening can help identify compounds that will return the gene expression back to its normal state.

On the whole, the podcast makes for really interesting listening. It's fascinating to be drawn into the world of model organisms and how they influence research in key areas, especially those connected with human disease. My only criticism, if any, would be the number of topics the podcast tries to cover in its thirty minutes, as switching every few minutes can be a little bit distracting. Overall, however, it does achieve its goal of giving the listener a comprehensive view of the latest research developments in this field.

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