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Big Biology

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Big Biology

Art Woods and Marty Martin

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The biggest biology podcast for the biggest science and biology fans. Featuring in-depth discussions with scientists tackling the biggest questions in evolution, genetics, ecology, climate, neuroscience, diseases, the origins of life, psychology and more!! If it's biological, groundbreaking, philosophical or mysterious you'll find it here.
 
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What do plants, animals and even river systems have in common? Branching networks are a universal element of life on Earth. Networks of veins, roots, xylem, phloem, and nerves – they all have large components that branch, usually repeatedly, into smaller and smaller components. The networks transport energy, materials, and information throughout th…
 
How does one of the most diverse groups on the planet, the ants, interact with the extremely diverse group of microbes that live on and inside them? On this episode, we talk to Corrie Moreau, a professor of entomology at Cornell University, about the diversity and influence of microbes in ants. For Corrie, these microbes are a sort of internal rain…
 
Can selection act on ecosystems, societies, or planets such that some persist and others disappear? Must such systems reproduce to evolve? On this episode of Big Biology, we talk to Tim Lenton, Director of the Global Systems Institute (@GSI_Exeter) and a Professor of Climate Change and Earth System Science at the University of Exeter. In his 2021 T…
 
Why shouldn’t we think of living things as machines? What is and what isn’t an organism? In this episode, we talk to Dan Nicholson, a philosopher and biologist from George Mason University about his new edited volume, "Everything Flows: Toward a Processual Philosophy of Biology". In it, he and colleagues argue that biological systems more resemble …
 
Why are tropical mountain passes ‘higher’ than temperate ones? Why do some organisms regulate their temperature better than others, and what effect does this have on evolution? On this episode, we talk with Martha Muñoz, a professor in Yale’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. We frame the chat in terms of two big ideas in thermal phys…
 
What is the link between climate change, declining wildlife populations and conflict between animals and humans? And how should scientists, governments and individuals manage declining populations of wildlife, especially when humans rely on them? On this episode, we explore the interface of biology and resource management with Briana Abrahms, from …
 
Does our DNA matter for our life outcomes? Can and should we use it for better social policy? And why have these questions caused such a stir? On this episode of Big Biology, we talk with Kathryn Paige Harden, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin where she leads the Developmental Behavior Genetics lab. Pa…
 
What roles does plasticity play in evolution? Where does novelty come from, and how does it become widespread in populations? On this episode, we talk all things plasticity with David Pfennig, a professor at the University of North Carolina, and Nick Levis, a postdoc at Indiana University. Their research focuses on something they call plasticity-le…
 
How did life on Earth get from its humble beginnings to the dazzling array of forms we see now and in the fossil record? On this episode, we talk with paleontologist Henry Gee about his latest book, A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth. The book offers a kaleidoscopic tour through the roughly 4 billion year history of life on Earth in just 288 p…
 
Do animals dance to the beat? When is birdsong music for a bird? Humans hear music in everything, but what about other species? On this episode we talk with Henkjan Honing, professor of music cognition at the University of Amsterdam, about the biology of musicality. Among diverse species, he and his collaborators now study how and why some animals …
 
What rules dictate trade in symbiosis? How did the complex relationship between plants and arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi evolve? What’s really going on in the world beneath our feet? On this episode, we talk to Toby Kiers, an evolutionary biologist at VU University Amsterdam, about the massive networks of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) that inha…
 
How and when did early humans domesticate the plants that we use today? Did these ancient farmers purposefully select traits, or did they domesticate unconsciously? In the future, can breeders and farmers grow more nutritious and robust food using genomics? In this episode, we talk to Michael Purugganan, an evolutionary biologist at NYU, about some…
 
Are genes the primary units of selection and main drivers of adaptation? How does a gene’s-eye view of evolution fit into modern biology? On this episode, we talk with Arvid Ågren, an evolutionary biologist and Wenner-Gren Fellow at Uppsala University, about his new book, “The Gene’s-Eye View of Evolution”. The book chronicles the history of gene-c…
 
Why is the Serengeti such a special ecosystem? Why does it support so many different species, and what ecological processes regulate the enormous population sizes of its dominant large-bodied herbivores? On this episode, we talk with Tony Sinclair, professor emeritus of zoology at the University of British Columbia, about his new book “A Place Like…
 
How do diseases spread from animals to humans? Is it possible to forecast where disease outbreaks will occur and when they will blow up into major health crises? In one of the earliest episodes of Big Biology, Marty and Art talk to Barbara Han, a disease ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, about her research on zoonotic disease, h…
 
What causes Alzheimer’s disease? Why are some people more at risk than others? What are the prospects for a cure and the best options for slowing the onset of symptoms? On this episode of Big Biology, we talk with Daniel Gibbs, a retired neurologist, about his new book: “A Tattoo on My Brain: A Neurologist’s Personal Battle Against Alzheimer’s Dise…
 
What is the free energy principle? How do our brains use active inference to manage uncertainty and stress? On this episode, we talk with Karl Friston, world-renowned neuroscientist at University College London, about his free energy principle. In order for the human brain or any other self-evidencing system (be it Earthly or alien) to exist, they …
 
What does the world look like through insect eyes? What biological mechanisms make their vision different from our own? And how might those differences influence their evolution? On this episode, we talk with UC Irvine evolutionary biologist Adriana Briscoe (@AdrianaBriscoe) about color vision in insects, particularly Heliconius butterflies. We dis…
 
What do we mean by ‘extreme ecological events’? What’s more important to a population, more frequent extremes or changes to average conditions? How should we link the performance of individuals to the success or failure of entire populations? On this episode, we talk with Mark Denny, Stanford University professor of marine science and former direct…
 
Season 4 of Big Biology will kick off at the end of August. Before then, Art and Marty have a few updates to share: We're looking for new interns to join our team and help produce the show! Also, we're hiring an executive producer to help with management and episode production. The application is available on the USF career page for a limited time …
 
Is artificial light at night partly responsible for insect declines? How does it affect nocturnal insects, especially fireflies and other species that need darkness to thrive? On this episode of Big Biology, we talk with Avalon Owens (@avalonceleste), a PhD candidate at Tufts University whose research aims to better understand the effects of artifi…
 
What has COVID-19 taught us about preparing for future epidemics? Can we trigger innate immune responses – our first lines of defense - to mitigate novel infections? Can we use live-attenuated vaccines (LAV) meant for other infections to protect us while we develop specific vaccines for new pathogens? On this episode, we talk to virologists Konstan…
 
What is agency? How does it evolve? Do non-living things have agency? On this episode of Big Biology, we talk with Tufts University professor Michael Levin about his recent article in Aeon magazine called ‘Cognition all the way down’. In it, Mike and Dan Dennett discuss the phenomenon of agency and what it means for biology, basic to medical. We di…
 
How do organisms cope with long periods of tough conditions where regular life is impossible? How do some animals turn down their metabolism to levels so low that they can appear dead? How do animals emerge from such deep, low activity states? In this episode of Big Biology, we talk with Jason Podrabsky, a professor of biology at Portland State Uni…
 
Can selection act on ecosystems, societies, or planets such that some persist and others disappear? Must such systems reproduce to evolve? On this episode of Big Biology, we talk to Tim Lenton, Director of the Global Systems Institute (@GSI_Exeter) and a Professor of Climate Change and Earth System Science at the University of Exeter. In his 2021 T…
 
Are genes the prime movers in evolution, or is causality distributed across multiple levels of organization? What role do organisms play in evolution? Could organismal agency, the propensity to respond actively to selective forces, affect standard evolutionary theory? On this episode, we talk with Denis Walsh, a professor and philosopher of biology…
 
What is CRISPR? Who are the key players behind its discovery? And what does it mean for science both now and in the future? On this episode of Big Biology, we talk to renowned author Walter Isaacson (@WalterIsaacson) about his new book, Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race. We break down the rich history of …
 
Why are some corals more resilient to bleaching than others? How should we leverage genetic and epigenetic information to conserve coral diversity? On this episode of Big Biology, we talk with Hollie Putnam (@HolliePutnam), a professor at the University of Rhode Island, about threats to coral reefs and the steps she and her colleagues are taking to…
 
What can modern hunter-gatherer societies teach us about human energy budgets? What misconceptions do we have about weight loss and weight management? Are there limits to human endurance? On this episode, we talk with Herman Pontzer (@HermanPontzer) of Duke University. We discuss his new book Burn, in which he examines -- and in some cases overturn…
 
How did vocal learning evolve? What is special about human language? What brain structures are associated with speech and the many components of spoken language? On this episode, we talk with Erich Jarvis (@erichjarvis), a professor at Rockefeller University, about the neurobiology of vocal communication. Erich’s ideas draw on the amazing breadth o…
 
What is coevolution? How has coevolution between insects and plants shaped human history and culture? In this episode of Big Biology, we talk with Rob Raguso, a professor at Cornell University, who studies insect-plant interactions. Rob discusses his work on diffuse coevolution between night blooming flowers and their long-tongued hawk moth pollina…
 
Why are bee populations declining? How can we reliably monitor insect populations when many are so cryptic? And what steps can we take to ensure that populations remain viable? In this episode, we talk with Dave Goulson (@DaveGoulson), a professor of biology at the University of Sussex. Dave studies the ecology and conservation of insects, particul…
 
We are jumping into the podcast feed with a few quick updates. We’re revamping our Patreon tier system to give you more Big Biology content. We also created a Facebook group where you can discuss Big Biology episodes with other fans and we're starting to upload transcripts for select episodes on BigBiology.org. Become a Patron: https://www.patreon.…
 
On this episode of Big Biology we talk to Christine Cooper (@CECooperEcophys), a vertebrate ecophysiologist and professor at Curtin University, Australia. Christine’s research focuses on the thermal, metabolic, and water physiology of Australian mammals and birds. Her recent research, published in the Journal of Experimental Biology (a sponsor of t…
 
What is a germ cell and why do animals separate germ and soma (body) cells at all? What molecules determine whether cells become germ or soma, and are some such mechanisms products of horizontal gene transfer? On this episode of Big Biology, we talk with Cassandra Extavour, an evolutionary developmental biologist at Harvard who studies the how's an…
 
How has the amount of artificial light changed over the last 150 years? In what ways does artificial light affect human health and wildlife? And how can new lighting technologies ameliorate the effects of light pollution? On this episode of Big Biology we talk to Kevin Gaston (@KevinJGaston), a professor of Biodiversity & Conservation at the Univer…
 
How can local and state governments repair the damage done by COVID-19? Is there a vaccine on its way to a pharmacy near you? And what should you expect about lockdowns, facemasks, and new COVID-19 therapies in the coming months? On this episode of Big Biology, a panel of experts discusses the virus’s trajectory and impact, and our options going fo…
 
What is the role of chance in explaining variation in biology? How has it shaped the history of life on Earth? And how do scientists incorporate chance into their performing experiments? In this episode of BigBiology, we talk to Sean Caroll, an award-winning scientist, author, educator and, film-producer about his latest book, A Series of Fortunate…
 
Are whales the biggest animals to have ever lived? Why have they evolved to become so gigantic? What key adaptations support their immense size? On this episode of Big Biology, we talk to Jeremy Goldbogen (@GoldbogenLab), a scientist at the Hopkins Marine Station at Stanford University. For the past few years he has been tracking blue whales, aimin…
 
How did life originate on Earth? Why is it that eukaryotes but not bacteria or archaea evolved large size and complicated body forms? How likely is that life has arisen independently elsewhere in the universe? On this episode, we talk with Nick Lane, a biochemist and professor at University College London, about his 2015 book The Vital Question. Ni…
 
How did the Brown Recluse get its powerful bite? How widespread is venom across the tree of life? How do spiders use their venoms? On this episode of Big Biology, we talk with spider venom expert Greta Binford (@gretabinford), a Biology Professor and Biology Department Chair at Lewis & Clark University. Her lab explores the vast chemical richness o…
 
Where, when, and how did Homo sapiens appear? What do we know about the complex set of ancestral hominins that preceded us? How recently did other hominin lineages live and what happened to them? In this episode we talk with Kate Wong, a senior editor at Scientific American, about her latest article, The Origin of Us. Our understanding of hominin e…
 
Which animals are conscious, and how can we tell? Does it matter? Although many people think of insects as simple organisms that react in preprogrammed ways to their environments, scientists know increasingly that insect have subtle and complex forms of behavior and learning. But are they conscious? On this episode, we talk with Lars Chittka, a bio…
 
This podcast was originally broadcast by Complexity, a podcast from the Santa Fe Institute on April, 20 2020. Big Biology has featured several scientists connected to the Santa Fe Institute, and now SFI has its own podcast called Complexity. You can listen to all of their episodes here: https://complexity.simplecast.com/ This episode, as well as sh…
 
Today we’re replaying of our discussion with science writer David Quammen. We talked with him in 2018 about his most recent book, the Tangled Tree, which explores the influence of horizontal gene transfer on the evolution of life on Earth. But right now, it’s one of his previous books that is essential reading. In 2012, he published a book called S…
 
This episode was originally published in 2018. It's one of our most popular episodes of all time, so we decided to run it again while we're in between seasons. Look for new Big Bio episodes in August. What is life? How did life arise from non-life? What did life look like at its origin? Tune into this podcast to hear Art and Marty talk with Sara Wa…
 
How are early stage scientists pushing biology forward? What’s it like to be a graduate student during a global pandemic? Over the last several months, we’ve been collecting short audio clips from biology students describing their research. Associate Producer Michael Levin spearheaded the project, which we called the Student Spotlight. On this epis…
 
What’s the slimiest fish on Earth? Why are they so slimy? And can we leverage our understanding of slime to make better bioengineered materials? In this episode we talk with Doug Fudge, an Associate Professor at Chapman University, about his research on hagfish slime. Over the past 20 years, Doug and his lab and collaborators have figured out how a…
 
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