Mammoths in the Media

A quick round-up of the last two-and-a-bit weeks of Mammoth Media Madness, where on more than one occasion I found myself thinking ‘What would Peeta Mellark do…?’

It all started with Woolly Mammoth: the Autopsy…

(NB. in the UK, you can watch this on 4oD here)

The Daily Mail, the Independent and the Guardian all thought you should watch Woolly Mammoth: The Autopsy on Channel 4, Sunday 23rd November 2014

The Daily Mail, the Independent and the Guardian all thought you should watch Woolly Mammoth: The Autopsy on Channel 4, Sunday 23rd November 2014

Which led to an early morning trip to Media City in Salford, to talk mammoth blood on the BBC Breakfast sofa (and they squeezed a cheeky Radio 5 Live segment in on the way up the stairs too!). There was a whole plate of pastries for breakfast but neither I, nor the teachers who were divided about the controversial issue of whether kids should give their teachers christmas presents, wanted to eat them.

Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 12.56.15

On the BBC Breakfast Sofa, wearing my apple-scratting, cider-making clothes (all I had with me that weekend…)

On the BBC Breakfast sofa, wearing my apple-scratting, cider-making clothes (all I had with me that weekend…)

And then I wrote about the ethics of mammoth cloning for The Guardian’s Comment is Free [more here], which prompted a lot of other journalistic pieces, with comments from me.  Too many to link to.

Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 13.05.09

This was followed by an invite to go on BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Live. I said ‘Yes, please!’ [listen here]

No one wants to eat the Saturday Live pastries… From left to right: John Carder Bush, Rebecca Root, Carrie Grant, and me.

No one wants to eat the Saturday Live pastries either… From left to right: John Carder Bush, Rebecca Root, Carrie Grant, and me.

Then Russell Howard’s Good News got in touch. I was terrified, but thought what the heck. They uncovered my #RealorAuel secret, and it all got a bit cheeky, but it was great fun. Russell Howard is a very generous comedian, who let me take the mickey out of him as much as the other way round. [available here in the UK until 01:30, Thurs 11th Dec. Rest of the world, this link should work for you]

Russell Howard and I discuss the finer points of etiquette when sharing a bedroom with one's clone...

Russell Howard and I discuss the finer points of etiquette when sharing a bedroom with one’s clone…

Plus they give you flowers!

Flowers, crisps, chocolates and pizza to order in the Russell Howard's Good News dressing room!

Flowers, crisps, chocolates and pizza to order in the Russell Howard’s Good News dressing room!

And then I got flown to New York for an interview on CBS This Morning to promote the Smithsonian Channel version of #mammothautopsy How to Clone a Woolly Mammoth.

I got picked up in a limousine…

One of four limo trips through NYC. Must say BBC Breakfast didn't stretch (*groan*) to this ;-)

One of four limo trips through NYC. Must say BBC Breakfast didn’t stretch (*groan*) to this 😉

And the CBS This Morning green room had a pretty fancy breakfast spread… But what is it with breakfast TV and pastries? Who on earth wants to go live on national TV with pastry crumbs down their front or stuck to their lipgloss?

CBS This Morning puts on a good breakfast spread. Nobody wants to eat the pastries, again.

CBS This Morning puts on a good breakfast spread. Nobody wants to eat the pastries, again.

American production values made me look very [lip]glossy. I’m glad I wore my fave cider-making cardy again to make sure a bit of the real me made it on-air. Plus, breakfast is a cosy cardigan kind of time.

You can watch the CBS This Morning interview here: http://www.cbsnews.com/common/video/cbsnews_video.swf

Thanks dear chum Anna Zecharia for getting her entire US family up early on the day after Thanksgiving to record this for posterity!

Thanks dear chum Anna Zecharia for getting her entire US family up early on the day after Thanksgiving to record this for posterity!

I also got to meet up with my Team TrowelBlazers buddy Suzie Birch in NYC after the interview, so that was a bonus!

Suzie Birch and I catching up in Central Park, NYC. Nice selfie work there, Suzie!

Suzie Birch and I catching up in Central Park, NYC. Nice selfie work there, Suzie!

And the icing on the ridiculous cake? I made it into Grazia’s Chart of Lust. One below Morrissey. Oh Yes.

Number 7 on Grazia's Chart of Lust. Surely life is downhill from here?

Number 7 on Grazia’s Chart of Lust. Surely life is downhill from here? Thanks Nicola Hembrey for the pic!

It’s been a ridiculous whirlwind of a time. Exhausting and hilarious. Hopefully informative on the science front to all who paid attention, and didn’t get totally sick of me.


Postscript: one of the things that freaked me out about all this TV was having no idea about the practicalities of what’s involved in different settings: the studio set-up, what to wear, what to bring with me etc. For example, I don’t normally wear make up except for special occasions, but I’m vain/self-conscious enough to not want to look crap on the telly, so should I arrive with my make up done? Or bring it with me?

Here’s some knowledge I’ve gleaned that may be useful to others in the same situation:

1. I had to sort myself out hair/make-up/clothes-wise on #mammothautopsy. This meant I got stuck wearing the same boiling hot outfit for a week (for continuity) as we launched into the autopsy and filming earlier than I expected. I had my hair up, fortunately, so that wasn’t flopping around everywhere. But I don’t recommend a hand wash-only cardigan as suitable mammoth autopsy attire… Or necklaces.

2. If you go to a TV studio, they will do your make up and hair for you so you really don’t have to worry. This is very important for morning tv when you don’t really want to be arsed getting up even earlier than you have to and then have an eyeliner crisis or whatever. How much make up they put on you varies, though, so I imagine having some idea of what you want to look like might help. If I’d been braver, I might have asked for a leetle less of the slap on Russell Howard. Though as it just brought me in line with Russell — yes blokes, you’ll be getting the treatment too, as Steve says below — I suppose it was  beauty-base zero, as they say in the Capitol. The CBS ladies were the best, as they sized me up and realised I wasn’t a make-up person, so kept it minimal. BBC Breakfast kept it minimal too, but I think that was mostly because we had literally 30 secs to get ready and the make-up artist was also busy eating a pastry with one hand. Still, at least someone’s eating those pastries 😉

3. Food. They will promise to feed you, but for breakfast TV & radio it will be pastries. And there won’t be any plates (I sound like my mum!). Fine for radio, but these have to be the worst food EVAH for a pre-broadcast snack as they’re so messy. I’d make sure you have breakfast first, if you aren’t too nervous.

4. Clothes. Apparently blue and green are frowned upon by RHGN (and any green-screen setting too), which was a disaster for me as that is basically my entire wardrobe (apart from Scandinavian knits..). Also crazy patterns, stripes and checks cause strobing issues. I had to dash out at lunch and buy a not-very-expensive red top from Zara. I recommend Icelandic cardigans wherever possible, except at mammoth autopsies.

5. It helps, I’ve found (also when doing live events), to wear something with a waistband that they can attach the mic battery pack easily. So skirt/trousers/dress with a belt. Otherwise you might find yourself fiddling with the waistband of your tights in fairly public settings…

I should also add that all of the producers I dealt with were super-nice, and super-kind. Thanks especially to Trudy Scanlon at BBC Breakfast and Ben Michaels at Russell Howard’s Good News for dealing patiently with all of my questions and being all-round good eggs. I even forgive you for the Mammoth Hunters excerpts, Ben — reading the books to find the juicy bits is punishment enough!

The ethics of mammoth cloning: UPDATED

I wrote about the ethics of mammoth cloning for the Guardian’s Comment is Free pages. You can read what I think here.

A quick update: Although in this interview with the Naked Scientists, George Church directly discusses elephant surrogates, I’ve just heard on the grapevine that he now intends to only use artificial wombs. I’ve emailed him to find out if this is true. Will update as soon as he answers.

In the mean time, I’ve asked the editors to add in a ‘probably’ to add some necessary ambiguity over the use of Asian elephant surrogates.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. Would I want to see a cold-adapted Asian elephant in Siberia if no animals were involved in the experimentation? It raises a different set of ethical questions, and I’m still thinking about it.

But one thing it doesn’t change is my scepticism over this plan of action as a feasible tool to mitigate climate change. Artificial womb technology seems a long way off, extending the timescale over which we can expect to see a viable cold-adapted Asian elephant in the world.

Even *if* the reintroduction of cold-adapted Asian elephants could do what its proponents hope — and we don’t know that it will — the time taken to genetically engineer, and artificially gestate elephants in the numbers that would be required is going to be considerable. And I doubt we have that kind of time when it comes to climate change. I’d like to see some well-thought out data and modelling on this, rather than romantic daydreams.

**UPDATE**

George Church kindly and very patiently replied to my questions. What follows is some incredibly mind-blowing science and a number of extremely good points. I’m digesting them still, and I’ll leave you to make up your own mind…

The answer to your question is: Yes.  Someone may use a surrogate elephant mother, if the chances of success are high and the expected benefits for the species survival/diversity are high (for example, due to extended geographical range).  My group will be working hard on alternatives, but it would be premature to guess at the exact state of rapidly progressing reproductive technologies years in the future. 

Getting full mammalian development to work in vitro is important for may reasons (testing hypotheses, testing drugs, tissue, transplantation, developmental biology, etc.)  Most vertebrates develop outside of a parental body.  For mammals, there are at least two options: 1) running blood directly through an umbilicus or 2) running blood through a placental interface.  We just published some relevant new technologies: 1) CRISPR activators which allow epigenetic reprogramming  and 2) in situ sequencing which allows analysis such reprogramming for closeness of fit to natural equivalents, 3) CellNet software to decide on multiple regulatory adjustments.  Automation allows us to optimize numerous parameters simultaneously.  It is hard to estimate how long this will take, but we have been pleasantly surprised few times recently, with technology arriving far sooner and better than expected (e.g. next-gen sequencing and CRISPR).

“You and I seem well aligned on this [GC is referring to my op-ed CiF piece]. I would certainly prefer to not interfere with Asian elephant healthcare, except positively.   My lab’s success already in using CRISPR on Loxodonta fibroblasts has not hurt elephants and hopefully will help in understanding their biology.  The costs and quality are improving rapidly since the protocols are being debugged in the context of experiments focused on human and mouse.  We are exploring methods to go from mammalian stems cells to embryos to babies, with inexpensive automated processes and high efficiency. If this works for mouse and pigs, then similar endeavors could be made for elephants.  This should help (rather than hurt) reproductive efforts for these precious species.  If we are successful in making cold-resistant versions of Asian elephants, then that might further help conservation efforts by allowing them to occupy locations with very low human population density and abundant vegetation.

“[I say in my CiF piece] ‘making a genetically engineered elephant that can handle the cold – this just isn’t as emotionally satisfying as … taking an actual mammoth cell nucleus’.  But, neither route is the “real thing”.  The frozen nuclei have been lethally irradiated for 10,000 years — broken to tiny pieces, while the synthetic DNA is unbroken and hence more like “real” Mammoth DNA.  If we are face-to-face with an animal containing such DNA and that looks like Mammoth and thrives at -50 degrees, I’d be surprised if we would be emotionally unmoved.”

 

 

 

**George Church is interviewed quite extensively in Woolly Mammoth: the Autopsy, so well worth watching to hear what he has to say on the matter: 8pm, 23rd November on Channel 4**