Herding Hemingway’s Cats: Understanding How Our Genes Work–Interview with Kat Arney

Kylie Sturgess

Dr. Kat Arney holds a degree in natural sciences and a PhD in developmental biology from Cambridge University, which she followed with a post-doc at Imperial College, London. For her day job Kat is a professional science communicator, media spokesperson, award-winning blogger, podcaster, and general scicomms for Cancer Research UK.

In her spare time, Kat is a freelance writer, broadcaster, and public speaker, appearing on the highly successful Naked Scientists for the past decade and producing and presenting the monthly Naked Genetics podcast, as well as copresenting the weekly national BBC Radio 5Live Science show. Her new book is called Herding Hemingway’s Cats: Understanding How Our Genes Work, which takes a look at the history, influence, mysteries, and misconceptions about the field of genetics.

Dr. Kat Arney: I think I’ve always been quite fascinated by science. I was one of those children who had the books about space and plants and build your own inventions. I think I always maybe wanted to be a mad professor or an inventor. I used to invent a lot of stuff, and I had a chemistry set when I was little. My dad got me a chemistry set, and I really got the bug from that. But once I’d used up all the copper sulfate, we weren’t sure where to get anymore, so then I just had to do science at school.

I didn’t enjoy physics and math so much but loved biology and chemistry, and it’s just grown from then, and realizing that now genetics really is my passion. It’s what I did my PhD in; it’s part of what I really specialized in at university. Yeah, what makes us us? How do our cells work? How do you build a baby from DNA? That’s really what fascinates me.

Kylie Sturgess: That’s essentially what the beginning of your book, Herding Hemingway’s Cats: Understanding How Our Genes Work, delves into. You got intrigued by Hemingway’s Cat, polydactyl pets, and this got you interested into genes and genetics?

Arney: Yes. So my background as a scientist is in genetics. I did my PhD in something called “developmental genetics,” which is basically how do you go from a single fertilized egg; it has one set of DNA. You get half from mom, half from dad, and that egg divides and divides and divides, and those cells specialize and make all the different bits of you, and how does that know to be you, a human? Then if that’s a cat, how does it know to be a cat? What makes that different from a fish? All these things really fascinated me.

I’ve been working as a science writer and a broadcaster for about ten, eleven years since I left the lab. I’m really clumsy, so I’m not really into being in the lab! I’m much better at just telling the stories about science. I go to a lot of conferences still. I talk to a lot of scientists, and I was sitting in this conference all about how genes get turned on and off.

There was a chap there, Bob Hill, from Edinburgh, talking about the Hemingway cats and they have extra thumbs. They’re almost like … They have these kind of big mittens. They’re gorgeous animals, and so Ernest Hemingway was given one of these by an old sea captain, very popular up the east coast from the time of great seafaring on the east coast of America. It’s a single change that causes this, this extra thumb. You might think, “Well, you know, that’s a change in the thumb gene, I guess?” It’s not, because there’s no such thing as a finger gene or a thumb gene.

Ernest Hemingway and his cat.

It’s actually a change in a control switch that turns on a gene called Sonic Hedgehog—which is the real name of the gene—which is a gene that helps cells make decisions in development. Are you going to be a finger or not a finger? Because there’s this mistake in the control switch, the genes are not turned quite on and off at the right time in the right place as the cat is growing in the womb, or the same thing for some humans as well. You just kind of make extra fingers; they don’t know when to stop!

That really got me thinking, because we hear about genes all the time, don’t we? In the media, there are things that make your eyes blue, they’ll make your hair curl, they make you fat, they give you cancer, and so on. There’s genes for schizophrenia and alcoholism and all these of things—but do we know how they work? I would talk to my friends and say, “Do you know how genes work?” They’d go, “Oh, no. I’d be really interested in that.”

I thought, “Aha, there’s a book idea here,” so I went to talk to all my scientist friends and I said, “I want to write a book about how genes work,” and they all said, “Well, when you find out, let me know.” I thought, “I’m definitely onto something here.” Just trying to figure out where are we now in understanding how will genes actually work? How do you go from this DNA code that many of us are familiar with now. DNA is a symbol used everywhere to signify “biology”—but how does it work?

Sturgess: It seems like a particularly huge journey that you go on into your book, and I was very impressed that you managed to keep it under fifty chapters at the very least, let alone several volumes! One of the things that you mentioned was that researchers can be particularly tribal, favoring certain answers depending on their specialty. Was this an issue when you were doing the research?

Arney: Yes, and I have to be honest, I’m definitely part of one tribe! I’m not the sort of reporter that can just passionately step back and go, “Well, some people say this and some people say that. Do you feel like the bulk of the evidence does kind of fall down on one side?” I’m not a big fan of over-hyping things like the promise of epigenetics or saying that, “This is almost like some kind of genetic magic.” I’m very much on what does the data tell us? If we don’t actually have the data, I don’t think we should just make stuff up and speculate too much. I’m more interested in the amazing things that are real and we know to be true.

I mean, there are some kinds of very strange things that I look into. There’s a molecule called RNA, which is made when a gene is read. It’s kind of like a photocopy of the gene, a molecular photocopy. Recently it’s been discovered that there are a lot of circles of RNA. Normally it’s just like a straight string, and people have discovered that cells are packed with all these circles of RNA. No one knows what they’re doing. Some people say, “Oh, yeah. It’s important,” and some people say, “It’s just junk. I mean, this is just rubbish. It’s not there for a purpose at all.”

I look into some of those things and some of those slightly more weird phenomena that are kind of coming through around the fringes of genetics. Because I think we should look into these and talk about them, but we shouldn’t promise that they are magic or the solution. But I am very interested in the tribalism of scientists—and you have to remember that scientists are real people with real characters and real grumpiness!

Sturgess: Just look like everybody else out there!

Arney: Yeah, I drank a lot of coffee and in some cases a lot of wine with them.

Sturgess: Do you have any particular concerns about misinterpretation or the misuse of science when it comes to genetics? I see people making promises all the time, and I try to make myself skeptical. Sometimes it seems a bit difficult to wonder, “Okay, just how much of that is true?” since there’s so many new findings all the time.

Arney: Yes, and there are a lot of findings that come out in a lot of papers. I’m genuinely skeptical of quite a bit of the epigenetic stuff because that’s the field I used to work in. I worked in epigenetics before it was cool, and now lots of people are talking about epigenetics. This is more formally. It’s the answer to the challenge if every cell in your body has the same set of DNA and you need to respond to changes in your environment and all this kind of thing and make different sorts of cells. You’ve got liver cells and skin cells and brain cells, but they all have the same set of DNA. How do you do that? We’re not some big blob of unformed putty with every cell identical, so clearly you use different genes at different times.

The challenge of how do you switch those on, how do you switch those off? How does the skin cell remember it’s skin, and doesn’t just go, “Oh, I’m going be brain today.” That is proper epigenetics. There are marks on the DNA that help to do that. There are marks on the proteins that package that DNA, but there are lots and lots of other molecules called “transcription factors,” and there’s all these control switches, and that’s kind of how a lot of that is done. There’s been a very interesting scientific argument raging over the past month or so about an article that was written in The New York Times about epigenetics. It was written very much from one side of the view about epigenetics, that it’s almost a … kind of biological magic, I think? Then the people that I’ve spoken to have all come out on the other side and said, “Hey, this is not right!”

It’s amazing because it’s one of the issues I really delved into in my book: What are these marks like? How much can we credit them for? What is really responsible for cells knowing what to do? Yeah, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of saying, “It’s all these switches do all of these kind of things, and it’s almost a kind of magic.” I really wanted to avoid falling into that error and that mistake.

Sturgess: In the book you discuss how you travel a lot for the research and writing and at one point, you’re in California in 2014—and it’s the time of the Ice Bucket Challenge; it’s all over social media. What’s your take on these kinds of trends? Do you think we should have more of these in order to essentially unpack and demystify some of the diseases that are caused by genetic problems?

Arney: Well, I am all for anything that encourages more money to go into funding science. I’ve just spent the best part of twelve years in the U.K. working for Cancer Research U.K., which is the U.K.’s biggest cancer chapter—I think, probably the world’s—and the biggest independent cancer research charity. We actually had a big thing called No Make-Up Selfie! Which is quite incredible. My face is worth ten million pounds as a result, funnily enough. Because we raised ten million pounds, we were able to fund at least ten new clinical trials that wouldn’t necessarily have been funded without that money.

Things like the Ice Bucket Challenge, that was for a disease called Autoimmune Disease or ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, it’s known as in the States. It raised a lot of money for that and that’s absolutely fantastic, because some of these diseases, they’re not as well-known as things like cancer. “Sexy” is kind of the wrong word, but if you can raise money for a disease like autoimmune disease, where not many people get it and hardly anyone knows about it, it’s incredible. I’ve had people in my family affected by it, so I feel very passionately that more money needs to go into research of this disease. Because, at the moment, there’s pretty much nothing at all you can do. Yeah, if it takes goat racing or buckets on heads or any of that thing, then more money for science has to be a good thing.

Sturgess: Your book, Herding Hemingway’s Cats: Understanding How Our Genes Work is out. How’s the response been to it? Are you in the process of writing a new one?

Arney: It’s been absolutely amazing. Really, really incredible reviews. I’ve actually quit my fulltime job to go and promote the book, to work as a freelance writer now, which is terrifying but is very much fun. I’ve had really great reviews. I think my favorite one was in Nature. I had great reviews in the popular press and stuff like that, but I really wanted scientists to go, “Yeah, she gets it. This is a good summary of our field.” But it’s written in a way that pretty much anyone can pick up and enjoy. Because it’s just full of stories; it’s full of first-person interviews of me going around and chatting to scientists. I am starting to work on book two… but it’s all a bit of a secret at the moment!

Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is the host of the Token Skeptic podcast and regularly writes editorial for numerous publications and the Token Skeptic blog. She was the co-host for the Global Atheist Convention in 2010 and 2012. An award-winning Philosophy teacher, Kylie has lectured on teaching critical thinking and anomalistic beliefs worldwide. In 2011 she was presented with the Secular Student Alliance Best Individual Activist Award and presented at the World Skeptics Congress 2012.