Monday 26 September 2016

Why did you have to go and mention Elvis?

Higgs the Dog Particle
....before he started reading Bring Back the King.
My new book, 'Bring Back the King: The New Science of De-Extinction' is now on sale. I'm just a little bit excited about that. But as people begin to put the kettle on, make a brew and settle down to read it, I'd like to deal with one issue before it rears its ugly head. This is a popular science book about de-extinction. It's about using high tech methods to save species, not just that are gone, but that are still with us, on the brink of extinction. It's about conservation. It's about biodiversity loss. It's about the staggering rate at which we lose species every day .... but it also contains a chapter on whether or not it's possible to 'de-extinct' Elvis. So what the hell was I thinking? Here follows a conservation between me and serious scientist in which I attempt to answer that very question.

A new book about de-extinction? Well done, Helen. That’s brilliant. (SIGHS HEAVILY, ROLLS EYES OUT LOUD) But why did you have to go and ruin it all by including a chapter about Elvis Presley?

What do you mean?

Well, Helen. Everyone knows that de-extinction is about bringing back extinct animals, not dead humans. It’s about returning lost genetic variation and biodiversity back into the world. It’s NOT about re-creating burger-eating, rock ‘n’ roll icons, even if such a thing were possible, which it’s not.

Whoa there, Pipette Lady. I know all that.

You do. OK, so why did you do it?

Because I was curious. Because you can buy samples of Presley’s hair on eBay. Because scientists can extract DNA from hair, edit genomes, and create genetically identical animals through cloning. I’m interested in how far this technology can be taken.

Well, I don’t like it… and I’m not entirely happy about you starting sentences with the word ‘because.’


Because… (PAUSES TO EXPRESS PROFOUD LOOK OF DISAPPOINTMENT) I am not happy because de-extinction is a serious endeavour that you deliberately seem to be making light of.

Well spotted, my friend. My goal is that the whole book is tinged with humour and flippancy and wilful insouciance. It would be relatively easy to write a popular science book with ‘just’ facts in. But if you’re not careful, it can be dull as dishwater and that can put people off. My hope is that, by adding colour and laughs and light-heartedness, I can tempt people who would never normally read a popular science book to do just that.


And then, whilst they’re reading about Presley’s pickled wart and they’re being entertained and their guard is down, BAM, I hit them with some hard core molecular biology but it’s so subtle that they don’t even know what’s  happened.

You literally hit them with a pipette?

Yes, I do. It’s science by stealth. Incidentally, did you see the recent Nature paper suggesting gullibility is 80% heritable?

No…. what just happened?

Higgs the Dog Particle
....after he finished reading Bring Back the King.
He gave it full barks out of ten. 
Look, I hope this book will make people laugh. I hope it will seem inviting to people because it is a bit naughty. I hope it will inform and entertain. But I also hope that it will make people think very deeply. The book has a serious side. It talks about the current biodiversity crisis. Extinction rates are currently 1000 times higher than during pre-human times.  We’re making a big fat mess of our planet and we need to work out what to do about it. De-extinction might be part of the solution. It might not, but we need at least to get people familiar with the idea so they can talk about it and participate in decisions about what happens next.

And you seriously think that Elvis Presley can do that?


Wednesday 14 September 2016

Bring Back the Passenger Pigeon

A little over a century ago, the last passenger pigeon on Earth fell off her perch. An elderly female called Martha, she was the last of a species that used to flock in the billions. The collective beating of their cobalt-blue wings was like the rumble of thunder, and the draught it created was enough to chill those standing on the ground below. Once the most abundant bird in North America, there were, at one time, more passenger pigeons alive than people. A single flock could stretch over 100 miles long and take days to pass overhead. An avian eclipse, they blotted out the sun.
Beaky blinder!
Stuffed passenger pigeon at the Harvard Museum
of Natural History. Credit Laura Poppick. 

And then, one day, they were gone. In the nineteenth century, they were shot, clubbed and blasted form the skies by men who sold them for their meat. The cheapest source of protein in the United States, passenger pigeons became big business and most ended up baked, stewed or wearing pie-crust lids. Their numbers plummeted perilously but by the time anyone noticed and protective legislation was introduced, it was too late. There were no passenger pigeons left to save. The last of a species that had thrived for millennia, Martha spent her final days caged in the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens, Ohio. Aged and immobile, visitors pelted her with sand to make her move, so in the end her keepers had to cordon off her enclosure. And then, on 1 September 1914, Martha died. The passenger pigeon was no more. It ceased to be. It expired and went to meet its maker. What a sad, sad story.

But plans are afoot to bring this iconic species back to life. Under the banner of the ‘The Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback,’ scientists from the non-profit organisation Revive and Restore are working hard to de-extinct the ‘Blue Meteor’ (as it was also called). It’s an extraordinary project that is already well under way. It involves a blend of cutting edge genetics, cell biology and some good old-fashioned pigeon breeding. Over the last couple of years, I’ve had the privilege to chat with the project’s lead scientist, Ben Novak. We’ve talked in detail about how the feat will be achieved. I discuss this in depth in my book, ‘Bring Back the King: The New Science of De-extinction,’ so I won’t go into it here. But in our most recent catch up, we debated an equally pressing issue.  Just because we can de-extinct something, doesn’t automatically mean that that we should. So why is bringing back the passenger pigeon a good idea?

Why do it?

Novak has spent the last few years pouring over historical records of the bird, and genetic data prised from the many preserved specimens that lie in museums around the world. It forms the basis of his Master’s thesis. Bringing back the passenger pigeon, he concludes, isn’t an act of academic curiosity; it’s an act that will shape the deciduous forests of the eastern US in a profoundly positive way. It will benefit, not just the trees, but the animals and other plants that live in and around them. It will boost biodiversity and help to regenerate woodlands.

These are bold claims for a species best remembered for the devastation it wrought. Records reveal how, when a flock came to rest, the birds would pile on top of one another, breaking boughs and bending branches. Whole trees were toppled. Nomadic by nature, the birds would land in a mast-laden forest, devour every morsel they could find, cover the ground in guano and then take to the skies in search of another roost to ravage.

But in the aftermath of this avian apocalypse came life. The closed canopy woodland became open again, explains Novak. Sunlight was able to reach the forest floor, where the guano fertilised the earth and new plants and flowers grew. In turn, this attracted a whole host of birds, amphibians, insects and mammals. The whole landscape changed. It became more biodiverse, more vibrant, more ‘alive’ … until the closed canopy regrew and the cycle started again.

“These were ecosystem engineers,” he says. But because they were nomadic, and moved around a lot, the regeneration wasn’t uniform across the landscape. It was patchy. So different parts of the forest were in different stages of the regeneration cycle at any one time.  Bring back the passenger pigeon and these natural cycles of regeneration will resume, he argues.

But ecosystems don’t stand still. When species go extinct, landscapes change in profound ways. Think, for example, of the woolly mammoth. When it disappeared, the lush, fertile grasslands of its heyday were replaced with barren, scraggy tundra. Critics of the Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback argue that it’s former habitat has changed too much, that the landscape is ‘too far gone’ to support a 21st century version of this beloved bird.

Novak, however, has evidence to suggest that passenger pigeons have been disturbing the forests of the eastern US for tens of thousands of years, and that during that time, they persisted in perpetually large numbers. Forests came and forests went. There were times when conifers proliferated, periods when deciduous trees gained the upper hand, but it mattered little. With their generalist diet and their wing-fuelled wanderlust, the passenger pigeon kept on moving on, sculpting the ecosystem along the way.

“It doesn’t matter that the forest is different today,” says Novak. “The only forest they need is one with trees in it. Bring it back and it will restore vital ecological functions to the eastern US forests.” 

Sounds like a pretty good argument to me.

Friday 15 April 2016

Is this the most heinous piece of science writing ever?

… so ran a recent headline in the Express newspaper (click headline the headline to read it...if you dare). ‘Experts,’ we are led to believe, are creating homosexual moths in an effort to curb the UK’s growing moth problem. But are they? Are they really? Or is this the most heinous piece of ‘science writing’ ever?  

The elephant hawk moth: not gay.
According the article, scientists have developed a chemical lure that attracts male moths. It’s a synthetic pheromone which then settles on the insect’s body, making it smell like a female and seem irresistible to other males. The guy moths are then so busy trying to mate with one another that they forget about the females. They have been ‘turned gay.’

Let me begin by saying, just for the record, that I don’t have a problem with gay moths. Some of my best friends are gay moths. Insects, I believe, should be allowed to make their own lifestyle choices just as we do. If there was a ‘Moth Pride’, I’d go. But are these animals really gay?

Dousing male moths in female pheromones is the equivalent of plucking a man from a pub, putting him a dress and a wig, and spraying him with a fine mist of ‘Temptation’ by Impulse. Sure, he might turn heads but if another man offers to buy him a drink, we don’t presume that man to be homosexual. It could be the disguise is so convincing he thinks he is chatting up a lady… albeit one with unusually large hands and stubble.

Wednesday 15 April 2015

Moth Night

Forget butterflies with their ‘look at me, I said, LOOK AT ME’ wings, moths are where it’s at.

Its ten o’clock Saturday night when normal people are either at home shouting at the telly, or outside a pub falling over. Instead, I’m in a small tree-lined clearing, watching a man I’ve never met paint a cocktail of treacle, ale and rum onto the bark of a silver birch.

A short while later, illuminated only by the fading glow of my Pound Shop torch, I find myself skimming tall grasses with a butterfly net. My conspirators, a hotchpotch of middle-aged strangers, are lost in their own identical rituals.

Friday 12 April 2013

Primitive Primate Found in Croydon

Think Croydon. Think riots, concrete, knife crime. Think Leona Lewis. Croydon doesn’t get a good press. Which is why the discovery of a unique, fossilised primate in said cement-fest is, I feel, worthy of a mention.

Fossilised teeth suggest the
Croydon primate ate fruit and insects
Last year, palaeontologist Jerry Hooker from London’s Natural History Museum, described the fossilised remains of primitive primate found in Park Hill, not far from Croydon’s IKEA. Now, to be fair, Croydon has its fair share of primitive primates, but this one was an altogether different beast, preferring as it did, fruit to Bacardi Breezers.

Friday 8 March 2013

Top 5 Virgin Births with Unlucky Deaths

Virgin births are rightly met with curiosity and awe, but for some, ‘miraculous’ beginnings have met with ill-fated ends.  Producing a virgin birth is difficult process. The first part – ignoring males – is easy. But the mother’s body then has to subvert the egg-making process, tricking developing eggs to think they’ve been fertilised.  Without fresh genetic material, developing embryos can suffer the effects of inbreeding, so most don’t survive. Which makes it such a shame that when they do, they have sometimes met with premature endings. Here are my Top 5 Unlucky Deaths for Virgin Births….

Thursday 17 January 2013

A happy ending for orphan genes

This New Year as the weather turns chilly, spare a thought for the orphan genes. Around a third of all genes in all genomes have no relatives – no parents, no family tree, no evolutionary past. They’ve had a tough time of it and they’re struggling for recognition.

Orphan genes are genes found in just one species (or a group of closely related species) and nowhere else – the jellyfish gene that guides the formation of stinging cells, the polar cod gene that prevents the fish from freezing, and the fruit fly gene that helps it to fly. They may even have stimulated the evolution of human brain. They’re innovative and they’re everywhere – orphan genes have been found in all of the genomes examined so far.