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'The Butterfly Effect: Covid-19 and Our Ancestors' ran on 8th June 2022 at the Parabola Arts Centre in Cheltenham.

People in seats listening to a lecture. © Shutterstock/Anton Gvozdikov

The MRC WIMM and Radcliffe Department of Medicine were delighted to partner with the Cheltenham Science Festival this year. In 'The Butterfly Effect: Covid-19 and Our Ancestors', a panel discussion explored research conducted at the MRC WIMM by the Genomics and Clinical Genome Editing Group, and the Genome Biology Group

Professor James Davies was joined on stage by biological anthropologist Dr Simon Underdown, Director of the Centre for Environment and Society at Oxford Brookes University. The session was chaired by science writer and broadcaster Vivienne Parry.

The panel explored an unexpected finding that emerged when researchers asked why some people developed severe Covid-19 while others didn't. After identifying a single letter difference in DNA which was associated with higher risk of severe disease, they discovered an interesting origin for this difference. This DNA difference which tripled the risk of developing severe Covid-19 was passed on in a chance encounter 50000 years ago from Neanderthals to modern humans. An example of the butterfly effect, this seemingly inconsequential change had much larger consequences thousands of years later. 

The annual Cheltenham Science Festival attracts thousands of visitors to Gloucestershire to explore and celebrate spectacular science. In 2022 more than 130 events have been taking place across the festival week.