2013 CHRISTMAS LECTURES looks to the animal kingdom to unlock the mysteries of human disease

Alison Woollard to investigate the Life Fantastic in the CHRISTMAS LECTURES, broadcast on BBC Four from 28-30 December

  • Dr Alison Woollard

    Alison Woollard, 2013 Life Fantastic Christmas lecturer

    Credit: Paul Wilkinson


Wednesday 4 December 2013

A menagerie of weird and wonderful creatures will be the focus of this year’s CHRISTMAS LECTURES, the annual science lectures presented by the Royal Institution. Alison Woollard, a lecturer in genetics at the University of Oxford, will use developmental biology to explore the secret of life and explain what we can learn about ourselves from creatures as diverse as microscopic worms, chihuahuas, the naked mole rat, chickens and lobsters.

The 2013 CHRISTMAS LECTURES, titled Life Fantastic, will be broadcast as part of the BBC’s Christmas schedule on BBC Four at 8pm on the 28, 29 and 30 December. In an action-packed demonstration-led lecture series, Alison will introduce the audience to a range of unusual creatures, and highlight their unique genetic properties to ask if the secret to longer life might be swimming in the sea or hiding underground.

The phenomenal contribution of these animals to our understanding of human life and disease will help Alison to answer the key questions posed by the three action-packed lectures, Where do I come from?', 'Am I a mutant?' and 'Could I live forever?' Taking centre stage is the ‘Hero’ C. elegans worm, the first animal ever to have its genome sequenced, which Alison uses in her research to study the ageing process in humans and genetic links to cancer. In Life Fantastic the worms will help Alison to demonstrate how cells know which part of the organism they are destined to become.

Other animals taking the spotlight include the lobster which has gained mythical immortality due to its unique self-renewing cells, mussels to learn about the incredible properties of proteins, a great dane and a chihuahua to demonstrate the diversity that can be achieved by just a few changes in the DNA, a goose and a chicken to look at genetic switches and naked mole rats to investigate the secrets of long life.

Alison Woollard, the Christmas Lecturer, commented: “I am incredibly excited and proud to be presenting this year’s CHRISTMAS LECTURES. Through Life Fantastic, I want to get people thinking about how one tiny cell is the building block for an entire organism and to understand the incredible potential this concept holds for future medical discoveries that could completely change how we recognise, treat and prevent hundreds of different diseases.

She added: "Everyone has an inner scientist; the world of science is not an exclusive club that most people can’t join, and everyone can feel the excitement of discovery when things are explained carefully enough."

The CHRISTMAS LECTURES are produced for BBC Four by Windfall Films in association with the Ri. For more information about the 2013 CHRISTMAS LECTURES please visit http://rigb.org.uk/christmas-lectures/2013-life-fantastic


For more details and interviews contact:

Hayley Burwell

The Royal Institution


020 7670 2991

About Life Fantastic

Lecture 1: Where do I come from?
Filming date: Saturday 14 December 2013
Broadcast date: 8pm Saturday 28 December 2013

Your life stems from a single cell. Yet within the trillion of cells that make up your body lies a fundamental conundrum. Each cell contains identical DNA, yet muscle cells are very different from skin cells; blood cells are very different from brain cells. How does each of your cells ‘know’ exactly what to do? And when? And where? How do your heart cells start beating? How can your eye cells help you see the world around you? Can we use our understanding of how stem cells transform into specialised cells to build new body parts? What can we learn from animals that can regenerate their limbs? And what are the implications of tinkering with the fabric of life?

Lecture 2: Am I a mutant?
Filming date: Tuesday 17 December 2013
Broadcast date: 8pm Sunday 29 December 2013

Yes. But so am I. And so is the mouse that we share 99% of our genes with. As our DNA replicates, mutations arise. Sometimes they can be catastrophic, but sometimes they confer a huge advantage. Falcons have eyes that allow them to see for miles, but ants are virtually blind. How come? How are developmental processes altered over evolutionary time to produce novel structures and, ultimately, new species? The history of life revolves around survival of the fittest ‘mutant’. As we understand more about mutations it could help us devise new treatments for genetic conditions. But are we prepared to genetically engineer humans?

Lecture 3: Could I live forever?
Filming date: Thursday 19 December 2013
Broadcast date: 8pm Monday 30 December 2013

Every living thing – humans, animals, plants or a single cell – eventually dies, but why? How do cells know when to die? What controls the ageing process and could we ever halt it? Developmental biology and genetics give us new insights into how cells work and what happens when genes switch on and off. Can we use this knowledge to improve or even extend life? And what are the ethical issues if we do? Would you really want to live forever?

Our 2013 supporters

The 2013 ’Life Fantastic’ CHRISTMAS LECTURES are supported by the Wellcome TrustCell Therapy Catapult and BBSRC

The 2013 Ri online advent calendar is supported by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).


The CHRISTMAS LECTURES are the Royal Institution’s biggest and most famous, demonstration-based science events for young people. They are broadcast on UK television every Christmas and have formed part of the festive tradition for generations – often being compared to the Queen’s Christmas message and the carols from Kings. 

The CHRISTMAS LECTURES have been inspiring children and adults alike since 1825. The Lectures were initiated by Michael Faraday at a time when organised education for young people was scarce. He presented 19 series himself, establishing an exciting new way of presenting science to young people. 

The CHRISTMAS LECTURES have continued annually since the 1825 series, stopping only during World War II. Many world-famous scientists have given the Lectures including Nobel Prize winners William and Lawrence Bragg, Sir David Attenborough, Carl Sagan, Lord George Porter and Dame Nancy Rothwell. 

The CHRISTMAS LECTURES have been broadcast on television since 1966, first on the BBC and then on Channel Five, Channel Four and more4. In 2010, the Lectures returned to BBC Four and in 2011 the combined broadcast reached over 4 million viewers. 

The 2013 CHRISTMAS LECTURES are produced by Windfall Films for BBC Four.

About Alison Woollard

Alison Woollard is a University Lecturer in Genetics in the Biochemistry Department at the University of Oxford working on the developmental genetics of the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans. She is also a Fellow and Tutor in Biochemistry at Hertford College, Oxford. Alison was educated at the Universities of London and Oxford, achieving a first degree in Biological Sciences in 1991 and a PhD in 1995. Her current work concerns molecular mechanisms of cell fate determination during C. elegans development, trying to unpick the complex mechanisms by which cells become different from one another as an organism develops from egg to adult. She also has a developing interest in the biology of ageing.

Alison’s current research interests stem from a career-long enthusiasm for using model organisms to understand biological problems; the fact that all organisms share so many similarities at the genetic level means that work on the tiny roundworm C.elegans (and of course many other well-established model organisms such as yeast, fruitflies and zebrafish) can be applied to much more complex organisms, including humans. Work on model organisms remains at the forefront of biomedical research today and has illuminated a myriad of biological problems, from learning more about the genetics of behaviour to understanding the development of cancer. 

She lives in Oxford with her husband and two children (10 and 6).

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