November 2, 2016, by Emma Thorne

Snail love

A brown garden snail called Jeremy may seems the unlikeliest of celebrities, yet his story recently caused a media sensation. Evolutionary geneticist Dr Angus Davison in the School of Life Sciences explains how the quirky tale of this unassuming – yet unique – mollusc captured the imagination of the public and put science in the spotlight.

It is not often that a photo that I take on a blustery autumn afternoon on campus ends up as front page BBC News the next day.  As an evolutionary geneticist, concerned with the inner workings of snail development and the way that snail shells are made, I am used to the fact that while my research is always fascinating to me, and sometimes fascinating to other scientists, the latest finding does not usually capture the attention of the general public.

I have spent the past ten or more years trying to understand why most snail shells coil to the right (clockwise) and identify the genes that determine this trait. Finally, in March this year, we reported in the journal Current Biology that we had identified a gene, formin, that determines pond snail shell coiling direction (chirality) and that this same gene may have a similar function in setting up the left and right side of vertebrate bodies, including ourselves. I think that it is fair to say that at least some colleagues and the scientifically inclined press were fascinated by the discovery. However, the story did not reach the wider public – that all changed when we acquired an ultra-rare ‘lefty’ garden snail, from a Natural History Museum colleague, who had found him/her (they are hermaphrodite) lurking around his compost heap.

Jeremy, as he came to be known, is one of perhaps one in a million garden snails that coil in the opposite direction, to the left or anticlockwise, as opposed to all other garden snails. Why are anticlockwise coiling snails such as Jeremy so rare, and is he/she different because of a mutation in the same formin gene? To begin to understand the inheritance of lefties, we needed to find a mate for Jeremy. Easy? No. The problem is that rare lefties such as Jeremy are not like other snails. Without being too explicit, when right and left coiling snails try to mate, their reproductive organs are in the wrong position and so they just can’t get it together. Lefties are generally destined to live a life unrequited, and so any ‘lefty’ genes that make them special are not passed on.

I tentatively contacted the press office, hoping to get some publicity so that we could get the general public to help us find another rare lefty snail. The response was almost immediate – before the end of the day, we had a plan in place and an agreement from the Radio 4 Today programme for an interview. Following the interview, which took place live in the studio with Jeremy crawling over John Humphrys’ hand (Nick Robinson: “Don’t squash him”), the story rapidly escalated. Minutes later, the photo that I took the day before was on the front page of the BBC website. I was in demand for newspaper, radio and television articles, conducting 10 interviews in the space of an hour in a BBC booth for regional and international press. I also went into the BBC Nottingham studios to give an interview for East Midlands Today, and also featured on a several comedy shows, going back to London to film No Such Thing As The News, and finally ending the week with a mention on Have I Got News For You. Not something I expected to happen in the preceding week, but I hope that we communicated some science (including issues such frequency-dependent selection and inbreeding), raised the profile of the University of Nottingham, and got the message out about finding a mate for Jeremy.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this whole experience has been to contrast the impact of the press release that we put out in March with the recent quest to find a mate for our ‘lonely lefty’. Both centre on similar science – that the same set of genes contribute to snail and human asymmetry – but I think that the addition of Jeremy created an easy hook for journalists, so that it was no longer a plain “scientist finds gene” story. Almost without exception, the press were very good to highlight the deeper story, that body asymmetry may be conserved between snails and humans (saying to me “yes, of course, that is what really matters here”). But, of course, the irony is that they weren’t at all interested back in March when it was just about body asymmetry … they needed Jeremy to draw the audience in.

Have we found a mate for Jeremy? Not yet – but snails are long lived and we hope that the continuing publicity will eventually lead us to find a mate, and perhaps do some real science.

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