Podcast: Sneaky sheep, substandard stallions and sperm wars

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Image: Shutterstock

Take a boat 40 miles out into the choppy Atlantic off the north west coast of Scotland and you’ll get to St Kilda – a collection of islands that makes up the westernmost of the Outer Hebrides. St Kilda is home to a large flock of Soay sheep, which have lived wild in their windswept home for thousands of years.

On this episode of Genetics Unzipped, geneticist Kat Arney speaks to Susan Johnston from the University of Edinburgh, who has been carefully documenting the Soay population over the years (they even have their own Twitter account, @SoaySheep). She’s using sophisticated analytical tools to take a closer look at the genes of individual animals in the larger population – and it turns out that some of the male sheep have been a bit sneaky! Although rams with large horns are much more likely to attract mates (and therefore pass on their big-horn genes), Johnston’s research shows that males with no horns are secretly taking the opportunity to pass on their genes too.

Reporting back from the recent Genetics Society Centenary meeting in Edinburgh, Arney also catches up with Patrick Sharman, a horse racing fan and graduate student at the University of Exeter who is studying the genetics of racehorses. Although there are pedigrees and racing records stretching back several centuries, relatively little is known about the role that genes play in creating a champion –  as proved by the story of Snaafi Dancer, the most expensive horse in the world that never won a race.

Related article:  Sperm carries more than just a father's genetics

Plus, Peter Ellis from the University of Kent discusses his research on sex chromosomes and reveals how warring sperm are responsible for skewing the ratio of males and females in one family of laboratory mice; Wendy Bickmore, the director of the Medical Research Council’s Human Genetics Unit talks about the Jackpot genes found in the descendants of Vikings living in the Shetland Islands; and Arney takes a spin on the dancefloor to Strip The Helix at Lewis Hou’s  science-themed ceilidh.

Full transcript, credits and show notes are available here. 

Genetics Unzipped is the podcast from the UK Genetics Society, presented by award-winning science communicator and biologist Kat Arney and produced by First Create the Media.  Follow Kat on Twitter @Kat_Arney, Genetics Unzipped @geneticsunzip, and the Genetics Society at @GenSocUK

Listen to Genetics Unzipped on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) Google Play, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts

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