From the bull-ring I fly to the capital of Belgium. Having no command over the Dutch language, I resort to broken French. This proves sufficient to get me on an eastbound train to Ardent city of Liège. The independent character of the Liègeois is embodied within a small wooden puppet called Tchantches, a resident since the 8th century. Reared on gin, his tenacious, rebellious but cheerful character brings colour to many a puppet show. My schedule doesn’t allow for the theatre, although I do find time to sample a delightful Liège waffle. Then it’s on to a 48 bus bound for the Sart Tilman, where Michel Georges (University of Liège) is based.

Michel tells me about his research in the beautiful wooded surrounds of the university campus. “We’re interested in complex phenotypes that are influenced by multiple genes.” I try to suppress a giggle when he divulges that he accidentally discovered a gene for well-rounded buttocks in sheep. In fact, this overly muscular rump first appeared on a farm in Oklahoma, and was christened Solid Gold. The offspring of Solid Gold inherited these ‘beautiful buttocks’, but in much smaller numbers than expected. “Depending on whether the mutation comes from mum or dad, it has a different effect on the offspring,” Michel explains. “To have beautiful buttocks an animal needs to inherit the mutant allele from the father and the wild-type from the mother.”

I ask Michel what is going on at the molecular level. The big bum gene enhances the activity of a small cluster of imprinted genes involved in musculoskeletal development. “It’s a case of polar overdominance,” he comments. “In fact the two alleles (mum and dad’s) are talking to each other. We have strong evidence to suggest that this interaction involves microRNA genes.” Despite being vegetarian, I wonder about the prospects of enhanced meat production. “We have no other ambitions than to contribute to basic knowledge,” he says. His team are now investigating this genetic system in mice. “We do some research in sheep but are trying to move away from that. It’s a bit of a big mouse.”