Roald Dahl: Amazing genes

June 27, 2016

I hope you enjoy this blog. Please do take a look at my research project and take my survey.


Roald Dahl is perhaps second to none when creating amazing worlds for children. He created some of my favourite characters, from the Roly-Poly Bird to Willie Wonker. The world of Roald Dahl is surprisingly a good way to introduce people to some equally amazing aspects of genetics. Here are a few below.


Roly-Poly Bird: Amazing language

The Roly-Poly Bird features in a number of Roald Dahl books. His appears in The Twits, where he acts as translator for the birds that Mr Twit is trying to catch for his dinner.


For those of you not familiar with the story, Mr Twit smears sticky glue onto tree branches to catch birds to make into pie. The Muggle-Wump monkeys (who are being kept prisoner by the Twits) try to warn the birds, but as the monkeys are from Africa they speak a different language to the birds they are trying to warn. This is where the Roly-Poly Bird comes in. He can speak many languages and is able to translate for the monkeys, warning the birds and saving them from becoming a pie for the evil Mr and Mrs Twit.


Genetics is very important in understanding the human capacity for language. Like the amazing ability of the Roly-Poly Bird, in real life birds help scientists understand language. For example, there is a gene called FOXP2. People who have a copy of this gene that isn't working properly have significant problems with language. The same gene, so vital for language in humans, we now know is also present in another animal; the songbird. Like the Roly-Poly Bird helping translate for the monkeys, songbirds are now helping scientists understand some of the mechanisms of human speech disorders. A bird with amazing language abilities has it’s roots in some fascinating science! 



Snozzcumber: Why some things taste horrible

The Big Friendly Giant (BFG) is, by giant standards, rather small. As such he gets bullied by the other giants who won’t share any of their food. Because of this he has to live of the disgusting snozzcumber, a vegetable that's like a cucumber only, well, snozzier.

But for some people cucumbers probably taste as disgusting as snozcumbers. This is becuase there is a gene (TAS2R38) that controls whether we taste a particular chemical as either bitter or tasteless. This chemical is found in cucumbers, meaning for some people with the right genetic make-up, cucumbers taste horrible and bitter. So for some people there is little difference between a cucumber and a snozcumber, both taste filthsome.   




Matilda: Can you turn genes on and off? 

In Matilda we are introduced to a child who has some pretty impressive skills. Matilda also has a neglectful family who don't appreciate her gifts and a horrible head mistress, Miss Trunchbull, who terrorises her at School. During the book, Matilda develops powers, such as the ability to move things with her mind. By the end of the book (SPOILER!) Matilda goes to live with the wonderful Miss Honey to live happily. At this moment, her powers go as she is content and no longer needs them.


Matilda is a fun tale that works as an introduction to the idea that things caused by our genes are not necessarily fixed. We all know that genes play an important part in shaping are traits and characteristics. Like the colour of our eyes, or telekinetic powers. Often when something is genetic it is thought that this characteristic fixed. However new research is showing that genetics is a bit more complicated than all that. This is because genes can be turned 'on' and 'off' depending on environmental factors. The fancy name for this is epigenetics and it's a hotly debated topic and Matilda is a nice introduction to this idea. 


I hope you enjoyed this blog. Please do take a look at my research project and take my survey.


All images used copyright of Quentin Blake. 


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