By Dylan Adlard (L6, S)
One of the perks of being a science student here is the wide range of events arranged by the College that inspire and educate us. One such opportunity took the Sixth Form Biology students to the University of Warwick on Monday 9 November, where we enjoyed a day of fascinating lectures given by academics from leading UK universities.
The day commenced with an eye-opening, yet humorous talk on de-extinction by professional science writer and commentator, Dr Helen Pilcher. She narrated with enthusiasm how an extinct species, the Bucardo goat, was reintroduced to this world for a whole seven minutes, before dying, again. It was, she said, “The first animal to be pulled out of extinction, and the first animal to go extinct for the second time, thus illustrating the godlike capabilities of biologists.” Through the use of self-knitted DNA, she went on to explain the chemistry of its double helix structure, and how a recent technology called CRISPR-CAS9 (molecular scissors) can be used to edit the genome.
The second speaker, Dr Yin Chen, is a professor of microbiology at Warwick University. He gave an in-depth talk on the human microbiota, meaning the organisms that share our body space. Some fairly disturbing facts emerged, such as there are 128 species of bacteria in our lungs, 500 in our intestines, 500 more in our guts and 200 in our mouths. He explained, however, that these microorganisms are vital, yet scientists know very little about them. Although estimates exist of how many are present, their functions in our bodies are still largely unexplained.
Professor Nessa Carey, a renowned geneticist, author and the chair of the event, presented an intriguing lecture on ‘Epigenetics; why DNA isn’t your destiny’. The fact that two genetically identical mice will vary in appearance and behaviour was thought provoking to say the least, but she went on, “If this hasn’t started to twist your mind, may I remind you of the common process of maggots turning into flies? Two complete different appearances, yet the genetic code of the fly is no different to that of the maggot”. She then explained that epigenetics is the study of how histone modifications and DNA methylation, as caused by external or environmental factors, affect gene expression. It is a well-known fact that the environment cannot change gene sequences, yet when a mouse is electrically shocked when smelling cherry blossom, its offspring have an inborn fear of cherry blossom. This raises the question to whether or not parents can pass on environmental response to offspring. The answer is yes they can, but how?
Dr Chris Willmott then gave a talk on ethics in the Biosciences. He highlighted the difference between whether something ‘couldn’t be done, or shouldn’t be done’ and explained the many areas of biology where ethics is vital, and how ethical problems can be avoided. He also gave us a task to carry out three case studies and determine what was right or wrong; a task much harder than it appeared.
The final lecture, by Dr Kevin Fong, was probably the most universally enjoyed and understood. He based it around his new book ‘Extremes’, explaining how the expectation of survival in extreme situations has risen over the last 100 years. His most gripping tale was of Anna Bagenholm, a girl who was trapped under ice and whose heart stopped for three hours, and yet after determined medical intervention still survived with a full mental and physical recovery. Dr Fong also highlighted some of the most successful medical equipment designed in recent years, such as the air ambulance and the iron lung. The rapid advances in both medical and exploratory knowledge in the past century has taken us from dying like Scott at the South Pole to planning to walk on Mars.
Dr Fong’s lecture was a great end to a fascinating and stimulating day, which has empowered us with further knowledge on a wide range of biological topics. Izzy Salmond Smith (L6, A) commented, "It was an interesting day that gave a good insight into relevant but expanded topics in biology in a real-world scenario", which was reinforced with Sam Mendis (L6, Xt) saying, "there were some very insightful lectures that gave me ideas for possible career paths".