81 episodes

Big Biology is a podcast that tells the stories of scientists tackling some of the biggest unanswered questions in biology.

Big Biology Art Woods and Marty Martin

    • Life Sciences

Big Biology is a podcast that tells the stories of scientists tackling some of the biggest unanswered questions in biology.

    Decoding CRISPR: Jennifer Doudna and the future of gene editing (Ep 61)

    Decoding CRISPR: Jennifer Doudna and the future of gene editing (Ep 61)

    What is CRISPR? Who are the key players behind its discovery? And what does it mean for science both now and in the future?

    On this episode of Big Biology, we talk to renowned author Walter Isaacson (@WalterIsaacson) about his new book, Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race. We break down the rich history of the gene editing CRISPR-Cas9 system--from its initial discovery in bacteria to the current ethical considerations for using it in humans. We also talk about the life of Nobel Prize winning scientist Jennifer Doudna, who, along with Emmanuelle Charpentier, initially proposed CRISPR as a way to edit DNA and modify traits to fight disease. We then close with a discussion of what CRISPR-Cas9 means for the future of gene editing and just how far it could, or rather should, go.


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    • 57 min
    Human-assisted evolution: Conserving coral diversity (Ep 60)

    Human-assisted evolution: Conserving coral diversity (Ep 60)

    Why are some corals more resilient to bleaching than others? How should we leverage genetic and epigenetic information to conserve coral diversity?
    On this episode of Big Biology, we talk with Hollie Putnam (@HolliePutnam), a professor at the University of Rhode Island, about threats to coral reefs and the steps she and her colleagues are taking to preserve coral diversity. Warming oceans disrupt the relationships between corals and their symbiotic algae, which can lead to coral bleaching. Warming also alters the composition and function of the entire coral holobiont, the diverse community of other organisms that live together with corals and their algae. Hollie’s lab studies the causes of coral bleaching and the physiology of coral holobionts, both to understand the basic biology of corals and to selectively breed corals that can better tolerate future ocean conditions.     
    This episode is sponsored by Journal of Experimental Biology. The journal is published by the Company of Biologists, a not-for-profit that has been supporting and inspiring the biological community since 1925. JEB is at the forefront of comparative physiology and biomechanics.


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    • 1 hr 3 min
    Feel the burn: The limits of human energy expenditure and endurance (Ep 59)

    Feel the burn: The limits of human energy expenditure and endurance (Ep 59)

    What can modern hunter-gatherer societies teach us about human energy budgets? What misconceptions do we have about weight loss and weight management? Are there limits to human endurance?

    On this episode, we talk with Herman Pontzer (@HermanPontzer) of Duke University. We discuss his new book Burn, in which he examines -- and in some cases overturns -- received wisdom about human energy budgets and human metabolism. Much of the book is framed around Herman’s amazing long-term studies with the Hadza, a group of modern-day hunter-gatherers in Tanzania. That work reveals insights into human energy expenditure, helping reframe our Western dogmas about diet. He argues that because our metabolism evolved to cope with starvation, weight management is likely to be much more successful if we limit what we put into our bodies rather than how many calories we burn during exercise.  His evolutionary perspective also alters how we understand and treat metabolic disease, and the energetic limits to endurance among elite athletes. Those fitbits we love might not be as helpful as we’d like!


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    • 1 hr 3 min
    Finding our voice: The neurobiology of vocal learning (Ep 58)

    Finding our voice: The neurobiology of vocal learning (Ep 58)

    How did vocal learning evolve? What is special about human language? What brain structures are associated with speech and the many components of spoken language?

    On this episode, we talk with Erich Jarvis (@erichjarvis), a professor at Rockefeller University, about the neurobiology of vocal communication. Erich’s ideas draw on the amazing breadth of auditory and vocal capacities among mammals and birds - from learning simple sounds to imitating sounds to producing complex, flexible vocalizations. We also discuss the unique “circuit within a circuit” neural networks of parrots that allow them to create such a rich repertoire of sounds. At the end, we talk about human speech and about what sign language, singing, and our “inner voice” tells us about its evolution.


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    • 1 hr
    Georgia O'Keeffe and the Red Queen: Ecosystem services via coevolution (Ep 57)

    Georgia O'Keeffe and the Red Queen: Ecosystem services via coevolution (Ep 57)

    What is coevolution? How has coevolution between insects and plants shaped human history and culture?


    In this episode of Big Biology, we talk with Rob Raguso, a professor at Cornell University, who studies insect-plant interactions. Rob discusses his work on diffuse coevolution between night blooming flowers and their long-tongued hawk moth pollinators, and how his and others’ ideas leading to geographic mosaic theory has helped us understand the evolution of novel traits. Rob says that plant-pollinator coevolution has had a huge and varied impact on human life and culture, well beyond its obvious effects on our agriculture. Coevolution between plants and their pollinators shaped our trade, our religious practices, and even the contents of our liquor cabinets.

    Photo: Robert Raguso


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    • 1 hr 9 min
    Bee kind: the buzz on global insect declines (Ep 56)

    Bee kind: the buzz on global insect declines (Ep 56)

    Why are bee populations declining? How can we reliably monitor insect populations when many are so cryptic? And what steps can we take to ensure that populations remain viable?

    In this episode, we talk with Dave Goulson (@DaveGoulson), a professor of biology at the University of Sussex. Dave studies the ecology and conservation of insects, particularly bumblebees, and he is the founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. Bumblebees and wild bees provide pollination services for over 50% of the food we consume—so ensuring their long-term viability is critical to our food security. Dave says that bees and other insects face many challenges, especially from neonicotinoid insecticides and from protozoan diseases and ectoparasites. We talk with Dave about the effects of anthropogenic stressors and the rapid action needed from individuals, farmers, policymakers, and governments to help maintain healthy bee populations.

    Photo: Pieter Haringsma


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    • 58 min

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