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Hopeful Monsters - (1998)

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Description

Hopeful Monsters

Horizon [1998-03-19]

A striking illustration in a
textbook sparked a profound obsession for Mike Levine, Professor of
Molecular Biology at University of California, Berkeley. It was of a
monster - tiny but garish - a close-up of a fly's head, perfectly
formed with normal eyes and mouth parts, but sprouting
from where its antennae should have been were two
perfectly sculpted legs. "I knew this was it," Levine says,
               "Such a dramatic mutation just had to hold the key to
understanding, certainly how to build a fly, but even other animals as
well."

               He travelled to the world renowned Biozentrum
Laboratories in Basel in the summer of 1982 to meet fellow American
Bill McGinnis. Between them, in a matter of weeks, they performed a
series of experiments that was to blow apart the world of genetics,
and crack open the mysteries of the developing embryo and the secrets
of how we and all other animals came to be the way we are.

               Through their work it is now known that humans share
the same gene inventory as the goldfish, the dinosaur, the sparrow and
the beetle. Instead of millions of genes doing different things in
different animals, there is a basic toolkit of genes used over and
over again throughout the animal kingdom. The human baby in the womb
is being sculpted by exactly the same genes that shape the developing
fly.

               This toolkit, known as the homeobox genes, is the key
to how nature has produced the staggering diversity within the 4
billion species that have existed on Earth since life began, and it is
leading to a new understanding of the mechanism of evolution
itself. The tiniest mutation in the toolkit genes can result in rapid
and dramatic changes in the animal, as it triggers a cascade of
inevitable consequences.

               Bryn Higgins and Peter Goodchild's film reveals the
mechanism of how dinosaurs became large, how insect flight evolved in
just a few stages, and how humans emerged as a result of a genetic
throw-back from a family of apes. Today, rare and disturbing medical
conditions such as "werewolf syndrome" are explained in terms of
just a simple mutation in nature's toolkit. And from just such an
genetic throw-back - a gene nick-named "Sonic Hedgehog" - treatments
are now developing for some of humanity's most pressing sicknesses,
such as skin cancer and Parkinson's disease.

               This film is about an obsession that has led to a
revolution. Levine and McGinnis look back with both pride and
amazement at how, in only 15 years, things have moved from fuzzy ideas
about mutations in fruit-flies to a precise knowledge of how genes
communicate with one another.

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