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01The Skin We're In20210720Evolutionary biologist, comedian, and aspiring Dr Frankenstein Simon Watt is on a quest to improve the human body, with a little help from our animal cousins. In each episode he turns his imaginary scalpel on a different human organ and wonders if we wouldn’t be better off with something slightly different – the eyes of a chameleon for example, or the guts of a vulture!

Our skin is the largest organ in our body, a soft, squashy bed-sheet sprinkled with hair follicles, sweat-glands and freckles. Not to mention all the cool scars. It's sensitive, flexible and waterproof - not bad. But it's also pretty fragile. Ashley Seifert from the University of Kentucky wonders if we might be better with the skin of the African Spiny Mouse. These incredible critters can lose huge patches of their skin, but then miraculously regenerate it all. Grow it back from scratch, like Wolverine, without a scar in sight. Handy!

But perhaps our skin could be helping us be more sneaky instead. Roger Hanlon, Marine Biologist from the Woods Hole Lab in Massachusetts has a suggestion: the light-show skin of the Common European Cuttlefish. This crafty cephalopod can transform in the blink of an eye to match pretty much any background you can think of; surely the most impressive feat of camouflage in the animal kingdom. Meanwhile radio-pharmacist Ekaterina Dadachova in Saskatchewan introduces Simon to a truly extraordinary fungus. It might not be much to look at, but this microscopic black mould uses the melanin in its skin to derive energy from deadly radiation - you'll find it growing in the destroyed reactors at Chernobyl where it consumes radiation at levels that would kill anything else. Would we take the trade?

A BBC Audio Bristol production for Radio 4, Produced by Emily Knight

Simon Watt wonders if we could upgrade the human body, with help from the animal kingdom.

02Eye To Eye20210727Evolutionary biologist, comedian, and aspiring Dr Frankenstein Simon Watt is on a quest to improve the human body, with a little help from our animal cousins. In each episode he turns his imaginary scalpel on a different human organ and wonders if we wouldn’t be better off with something slightly different – the skin of a cuttlefish for example, or the guts of a vulture!

Our eyes are our window on the world - sunsets and rainbows would be nothing without them. But both sunsets AND rainbows would look a lot more impressive through the eyes of the Peacock Mantis Shrimp. Amanda Franklin from the University of Melbourne explains that this small stomatopod has the most complex eye in the animal kingdom; they don't just see more colours than us, they also see polarised light better than any other animal on earth.

If colour's not your thing, how about seeing a long way? Graham Martin, Emeritus Professor of Avian Sensory Science at the University of Birmingham introduces us to the king of visual acuity: the Eagle. To spot your prey over vast distances, AND snatch that prey up with pinpoint accuracy, you need astonishing long-range and short-range vision, and Eagles have both. They have two fovea, one for long distance scanning, one for up close grabbing, and can switch elegantly between the two.

"Keep an eye on it", we say. Just one eye. As if that's possible. Well for the Common Chameleon that's no bother at all. The rapidly swivelling gun-turrets of the chameleon's eyes move independently, processing two separate views of the world at the same time. Useful for keeping track of bugs you might like to eat. Or your wayward children. Hadas Keter-Katz from the University of Haifa breaks it down.

A BBC Audio Bristol production for Radio 4, Produced by Emily Knight

Simon Watt wonders if we could upgrade the human body, with help from the animal kingdom

Simon Watt wonders if we could upgrade the human body, with help from the animal kingdom.

02The Naked Eye20210727Evolutionary biologist, comedian, and aspiring Dr Frankenstein Simon Watt is on a quest to improve the human body, with a little help from our animal cousins. In each episode he turns his imaginary scalpel on a different human organ and wonders if we wouldn’t be better off with something slightly different – the skin of a cuttlefish for example, or the guts of a vulture!

Our eyes are our window on the world - sunsets and rainbows would be nothing without them. But both sunsets AND rainbows would look a lot more impressive through the eyes of the Peacock Mantis Shrimp. Amanda Franklin from the University of Melbourne explains that this small stomatopod has the most complex eye in the animal kingdom; they don't just see more colours than us, they also see polarised light better than any other animal on earth.

If colour's not your thing, how about seeing a long way? Graham Martin, Emeritus Professor of Avian Sensory Science at the University of Birmingham introduces us to the king of visual acuity: the Eagle. To spot your prey over vast distances, AND snatch that prey up with pinpoint accuracy, you need astonishing long-range and short-range vision, and Eagles have both. They have two fovea, one for long distance scanning, one for up close grabbing, and can switch elegantly between the two.

Keep an eye on it, we say. Just one eye. As if that's possible. Well for the Common Chameleon that's no bother at all. The rapidly swivelling gun-turrets of the chameleon's eyes move independently, processing two separate views of the world at the same time. Useful for keeping track of bugs you might like to eat. Or your wayward children. Hadas Keter-Katz from the University of Haifa breaks it down.

A BBC Audio Bristol production for Radio 4, Produced by Emily Knight

Simon Watt wonders if we could upgrade the human body, with help from the animal kingdom.

general factual feature

03A Change Of Heart20210803Evolutionary biologist, comedian, and aspiring Dr Frankenstein Simon Watt is on a quest to improve the human body, with a little help from our animal cousins. In each episode he turns his imaginary scalpel on a different human organ and wonders if we wouldn’t be better off with something slightly different – the eyes of a chameleon for example, or the guts of a vulture!

Our heart is our life force, beating out the rhythm to our days 40-100 times every minute, for as long as we live. But it's also fragile; cardiovascular disease has been the number one killer of humans since the middle of the 20th century. And it's all the fault of FAT. Thea Bechshoft from Polar Bears International introduces us to the fluffy white giants of the arctic, who eat nothing but fat, all summer long, and suffer none of our heart-ache from doing so. The secret is all in their genes.

If you reach old age without your coronary arteries clogging up with fat, you might suffer instead from cardiac fibrosis, a kind of hardening of the muscle of the heart. Holly Shiels from the University of Manchester takes us a mile and a half beneath the surface of the North Sea, to meet an ancient titan who simply doesn't get age-related fibrosis. It's the Greenland Shark. They live to extraordinary ages too - up to 500 years old.

For our final stop on the cardiac carousel, Colleen Farmer from the University of Utah takes us deep inside the four-chambered heart of the Crocodile. It's very similar to our own, except for one small and fascinating valve. It allows the humble croc to control where its blood goes, bi-passing the lungs if necessary. Simon wonders what uses we might fund for a crocodilian 'cardiac shunt' of our own.

A BBC Audio Bristol production for Radio 4, Produced by Emily Knight

Simon Watt wonders if we could upgrade the human body, with help from the animal kingdom.

general factual feature

04Gut Feeling20210810Evolutionary biologist, comedian, and aspiring Dr Frankenstein Simon Watt is on a quest to improve the human body, with a little help from our animal cousins. In each episode he turns his imaginary scalpel on a different human organ and wonders if we wouldn’t be better off with something slightly different – the eyes of a chameleon for example, or the heart of a Greenland Shark!

Our bodies are essentially a long squishy tube, with a mouth at one end, and an anus at the other. Everything else is mere detail. What we put in that tube can make the difference between a life of good health, and a night locked in the bathroom. Dr Mads Bertelsen from Copenhagen Zoo introduces us to a creature that can digest things that would kill us; the vulture. Eating rotting meat's nothing, when you have stomach acid the strength of a car battery.

If meat's not your thing, you might want to switch out your digestive tract with that of a herbivore. A ruminant. Or to be more precise, a cow. Dr Cate Williams from Aberystwyth University imagines what we could do if we had a 'rumen', the unique organ that gives these massive, docile 'foregut fermenters' the ability to break down the toughest plant matter with no problem. For them, it's all about the microbes. Millions of them.

And if all this digestion sounds a bit too much like hard work, why not take a leaf out of the book of a Saccoglossa, a leaf-life, photosynthetic sea-slug who's mastered the art of photosynthesis. Christopher Howe from the University of Cambridge explains how they do it, via a gut system which has evolved the ability to steal chloroplasts, the photosynthetic cells from algae, and make them their own.

A BBC Audio Bristol production for Radio 4, Produced by Emily Knight

Simon Watt wonders if we could upgrade the human body with help from the animal kingdom.

Simon Watt wonders if we could upgrade the human body, with help from the animal kingdom.

general factual feature

05A Lungful20210817Evolutionary biologist, comedian, and aspiring Dr Frankenstein Simon Watt is on a quest to improve the human body, with a little help from our animal cousins. In each episode he turns his imaginary scalpel on a different human organ and wonders if we wouldn’t be better off with something slightly different – the eyes of a chameleon, for example, or the guts of a vulture!

For our final episode, we're wondering how to improve those squishy, spongey sacks of air that keep us pumped up with oxygen - our lungs. First up is Colleen Farmer from the University of Utah, expert in all things crocodilian. Both crocs, and their sister-group, birds, have a unique unidirectional flow system in their lungs, powered by air sacs that keep the air moving. It allows them to breathe - HARD - without damaging the fragile capillaries which keep our blood topped up with O2.

Breathing is one thing, but HOLDING your breath is another. Introducing the Cuvier's Beaked Whale, the champion cetacean breath-holder, with a record dive time of over three and a half hours. With specially designed cartilage that allows their lungs to squash completely flat, and myoglobin-packed muscles which can store an incredible amount of oxygen, everything is designed to keep them under for longer.

But perhaps lungs are over-rated after all. Surely there are other options out there? Why not ask a Painted Turtle - hibernating for months on end at the bottom of a frozen Canadian lake - their lungs are all but useless for half the year. Instead, they've developed an amazing breathing strategy. Forget talking out of your butt; these turtles breathe out of theirs! Suzie Simpson from the British Herpetological Society takes us through it.

A BBC Audio Bristol production for Radio 4, Produced by Emily Knight

Simon Watt wonders if we could upgrade the human body, with help from the animal kingdom.