Festival of Ideas May 2017

Kat Arney

Festival of Ideas: Kat Arney

Herding Hemingway's Cats - Understanding How our Genes Work

The language of genes has become common parlance. We know they make your eyes blue, your hair curly or your nose straight. The media tells us that our genes control the risk of cancer, heart disease, alcoholism or Alzheimer's. The cost of DNA sequencing has plummeted from billions of pounds to a few hundred, and gene-based advances in medicine hold huge promise.

So we've all heard of genes, but how do they actually work?

There are 2.2 metres of DNA inside every one of your cells, encoding roughly 20,000 genes. These are the 'recipes' that tell our cells how to make the building blocks of life, along with myriad control switches ensuring they're turned on and off at the right time and in the right place. But rather than a static string of genetic code, this is a dynamic, writhing biological library. Figuring out how it all works – how your genes build your body – is a major challenge for researchers around the world. And what they're discovering is that far from genes being a fixed, deterministic blueprint, things are much more random and wobbly than anyone expected.

Drawing on stories ranging from six-toed cats and stickleback hips to Mickey Mouse mice and zombie genes – told by researchers working at the cutting edge of genetics – Kat Arney explores the mysteries in our genomes.

Speaker biography:

Following a doctorate and subsequent research career in genetics, Kat Arney went on to become Science Communications Manager for Cancer Research UK, where she translated science into plain English to help people understand more about the disease. Now a freelance science writer and broadcaster, her writing has appeared in the Guardian, Science, New Scientist, BBC Online and Al-Jazeera Online. She regularly appears on national TV and radio shows, including Today, BBC Breakfast and GMTV, talking about the latest cancer research. She has presented several BBC Radio 4 science documentaries and programmes in the Costing the Earth series, is a regular presenter with the Naked Scientists, and presents and produces the Naked Genetics monthly podcast. Follow her on Twitter @harpistkat