One night in early October, Angus Davison got an email about a snail.
When one is a biologist who studies molluscs, that's not out of the ordinary—but this time, the snail was something special. A retired scientist from the Natural History Museum in London spotted the creature near a compost heap in the neighborhood of Rayne's Park, and was struck by something very peculiar: The snail's shell coiled left, rather than right. That's very rare—it's probably, Davison estimates, 1 in 100,000 garden snails that go in that direction. And so, when a colleague at the museum emailed Davison and asked, “Would you like it? Otherwise I'll put him in the freezer,” Davison was quick to rescue the snail from a frozen fate.
Once the snail had been mailed to University of Nottingham, where Davison is a professor, the question became, “Well, what can we do with this snail?” Davison says. The clear answer, from a biologist's perspective, was to mate it. That's because understanding what it is about Jeremy, as the snail soon came to be called, that makes its shell go the opposite way will require seeing whether the trait can be passed on. And if it can, Jeremy's genes may help reveal how it is that creatures of all kinds, from frogs to snails to humans, develop left and right sides. Davison and colleagues published a paper about a gene behind sidedness in March that Ed Yong covered for The Atlantic—it's a particular fascination of the lab.