Discover viruses that populate yogurt and create horned rabbits

By The Intersection | May 16, 2011 11:21 am

This is a guest post by Jamie L. Vernon, Ph.D., an HIV research scientist and aspiring policy wonk, who recently moved to D.C. to get a taste of the action

I remember as a kid, I don’t know 8 or 9 years old I suppose, when I was finally able to read “real” dinosaur books. I was captivated by the number and variety of dinosaurs. As wildly as I could imagine them, they appeared in my books. From the long-necked Diplodocus to the terrifying Tyrannosaurus, there seemed to be a dinosaur for everyone’s taste. I became so enamored with dinosaurs that I would proclaim, if prompted, that I wanted to be an archaeologist! Of course, as an 8 year old, I didn’t realize that what I actually wanted to be was a paleontologist, and that didn’t matter. I wanted to be a scientist.

While my dream of becoming a scientist has come true, I did not achieve my goal of becoming a dinosaur digger. Instead, I find myself in the world of molecular biology, specifically today I am working as a virologist. I have taken up the fight against HIV, a particularly heinous virus that is so effective at eluding our immune system that scientists have been unable to find a cure in the 30+ years we’ve known about it.

The history of our knowledge of HIV has unfolded like a mystery novel. It began with a chance observation by Michael Gottlieb, a doctor in Los Angeles who was perplexed by an apparent outbreak of an unusual form of pneumonia in gay men who visited his and others’ offices. Normally, healthy men would not be stricken by this disease. Their bodies should be able to naturally fight it. The fact that they couldn’t clear the fungus growing in their lungs suggested that they were immune compromised. And so, as additional cases appeared, it became apparent that something was afoot. People were dying from what we normally considered non-life threatening infections. Scientists took to the case. Within 2 years, they had identified the human immun0deficiency virus (HIV), a virus that destroys the immune system and leads to acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).

It is stories like this that stimulate the imaginations of young people. Of course, this level of curiosity requires a certain basic understanding of biology, therefore it’s refreshing when a talented science communicator is able to make the information accessible to all. By sharing the story of the discovery of HIV and many other viruses, Carl Zimmer has accomplished this task with his most recent book, A Planet of Viruses. It is a collection of short essays about the history and science of many of the world’s tiniest not-quite-living organisms. For me, it read like the dinosaur books of my youth, a built-in surprise with each turn of the page.

Zimmer superbly delivers the variety and shear magnitude of the viral world. From the story of tobacco mosaic virus, which gave us the idea that something even smaller than bacteria could be a pathogen, to the discovery that the number of viruses in the ocean exceeds the number of stars in the universe by 7 orders of magnitude. Revelations of this nature inspire young people to become scientists and encourage those who have given up on science to take another look. That is the beauty of Zimmer’s book. It highlights the wonders of nature to the extent that you’ll want to pick up another book or take a class on virology.

In actuality, I believe every young virologist should read this book. Much like Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks reminded me that the HeLa cells with which I worked on a regular basis originated from a single very real human being, this work provides a backdrop that might give new scientists a different perspective on their research. Zimmer reminds the reader that there is history that has brought us to our current understanding of viruses.

Having taken several microbiology classes, many of Zimmer’s stories were familiar. However, I wanted to review just how much of the story I had gotten from my formal education. I pulled one of my old microbiology textbooks down from the shelf and found that I had really only been given the briefest account of the history. For example, my text summarized the story of the discovery of bacteriophages in two sentences and had completely omitted that which makes science great, the battle of ideas. My text made no mention of the debate over bacteriophages between Felix d’Herelle and Jules Bordet both of whom eventually independently received the Nobel Prize. Zimmer not only mentions this debate, but provides a more comprehensive story of how it was ultimately proven that bacteriophage are viruses that infect bacteria than I remember learning in graduate school.

Zimmer applies his craft of science communication so effectively that I forgot that I was relearning the history of viruses and felt as though I was re-discovering the wonders that led me to become a scientist in the first place.  Not to mention that the pictures satisfied my desire for the wild and weird just as those old hand-drawn dinosaur images had done in the days of my youth.

I highly recommend that you not only buy this book for yourself, but I encourage you to pass it on to the nearest teenager. You just might inspire the next Timothy Rowbotham.  Who’s that?  Read the book to find out.

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