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Extraordinary natural phenomena with new medical applications
Monday 26 to Friday 30 January 2004 3.45-4.00pm

Jellyfish that give off an eerie glow, fireflies that flicker in the dark, electric fish that can stun, or leeches that suck the life-blood from their victims. They all delighted and horrified our scientific forefathers. Now these same extraordinary natural phenomena have been harnessed by modern scientists to push medical science to new limits.

Aequorea victoria by Dr Steven Haddock
Aequorea victoria by Dr Steven Haddock

Animals that produce dramatic bursts of green light, or brutal electric shocks, or gorge themselves on human blood were seen as magical beasts 150 years ago. These strange phenomena delighted the public who regarded the scientists' crude experiments as nothing short of magic. But the early anatomists and natural historians couldn't possibly have imagined how scientists today would hijack these dramatic oddities to explore the basic mechanisms of life.

The often lyrical, descriptive writings of the naturalists are intercut with the voices of modern scientists and medical historians describing how these strange phenomena were discovered to be useful scientific tools. The series will show how far we have traveled with our understanding of the inner workings of the natural world since those tail coated pioneering scientists first wrote about their magical observations.

Programme 1 - Jellyfish

When a Victorian naturalist called Philip Henry Gosse tapped a glass jar containing a jellyfish called Aequorea it shone with a spooky greenish-blue light. Today scientists have worked out how that bioluminescence is produced. They have discovered how to make this happen in other animals and plants by isolating the jellyfish gene that causes the glow and inserting it into other organisms. It’s not just a pretty novelty. It’s a really accurate way of watching the inner workings of living cells. This new diagnostic tool is one of the most profound new developments in medical science. It will not only revolutionise the development of new drugs like antibiotics but it will impact on all branches of medicine from stem cell research to the treatment of cancer.

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Engravings from John Hunter's paper to the Royal Society ©Royal College of Surgeons of England
Engravings from John Hunter's paper to the Royal Society
©Royal College of Surgeons of England
1. The under surface of a female torpedo
2. The upper surface of a female
3. The under surface of a male

Programme 2 - Torpedo

The electric ray, Torpedo, was an object of fascination for anatomists and physiologists two hundred years ago. Amusing and bizarre experiments to test the "electric fluid" that this fish produced were performed in front of astonished (and shocked) audiences. Scottish anatomist, John Hunter, dissected the electric organs to reveal massive arrays of nerves which produce electric shocks. Today the way our nervous system works has been worked out using this very fish.

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Medicinal leeches

Programme 3 - Leeches

Quacks loved leeches that could suck up large quantities of blood from patients and so purge them of "evil humours". But why didn’t the hapless patient’s blood coagulate and stop the leech feeding? Leech spit contains a chemical called hirudin. Today the quacks' favourite leech, Hirudo medicinalis, is now farmed for use in ever more precise microsurgery where clotting is a particular risk.

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Male blowfly ©Hein L Leertouwer, University of Groningen
Male blowfly ©Hein L Leertouwer, University of Groningen

Programme 4 - Fly's Eye

The beauty of the multifaceted fly's eye stirred naturalists and collectors to poetic descriptions. Today the gene involved in making the fly's magnificent eye is well understood. Called pax6, it can be inserted into other parts of the fly to create animals that are “all eyes”. Who would have imagined that this same gene exists in flatworms, squids and even mammals and codes for eyes in all of them?

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UK glow worm ©Robin Scagell of the UK Glow Worm Survey
UK glow worm ©Robin Scagell, UK Glow Worm Survey

Programme 5 - Fireflies

Fireflies - "Thicker than the stars on a wintry night and flashing and disappearing, every one moving about in their mazy evolutions." Scientists now understand the pathway that makes the enzyme luciferase flash. They have turned this phenomenon on its head in the laboratory to get a measure of metabolic activity in all living systems. So the switching gear for various genes is now in place as genetics bows to the observations of poets and naturalists of yesteryear.

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