Evolving Viruses To Death

By Carl Zimmer | January 4, 2010 4:51 pm

lethal mutagenesis cars.086This fall, I gave a number of lectures about the evolution of swine flu. By the time I got to the end of the talk, I could tell that a lot of people in the audience were feeling a bit resigned, given the way evolution allows viruses like the flu to evade our best attacks. (Here’s the full video of my lecture at the University of British Columbia.)

To try to cheer up the crowd, I’d offer a note of hope–the notion that we could turn the evolution of viruses against them, by pushing them into mutation overdrive. (This slide gets across the basic idea–the flu virus is like a sports car. Going fast is cool. Going too fast–not so cool.)

In tomorrow’s New York Times, I lay out this intriguing idea, that goes by the profoundly cool name of lethal mutagenesis. Check it out.


Comments (7)

  1. Lethal mutagenesis… can’t wait.

  2. That is a cool name for a cool idea.

    In the fight against bacteria, I think that quorum quenching is equally cool.

  3. Ian

    Overdrive? A bit dangerous me thinks.

    Doesn’t this approach assume you know everything there is to know about the swine flu virus, as if you had built it (like the car)?

    If overdrive does work, then surely it will injure or kill the driver, as per your example. More of a risk to mitigate against than a certainty of course, but still be careful.

  4. Well, actually, from the look of the slide it’ll just cost the driver a lot of money – that doesn’t appear to be a fatal crash (and if it is, remind me to never buy that brand of car because even a Mini Cooper driver would walk away from that crash pretty-much unscathed) – though it is a Ferrari so the saftey measures might be a little lacking. You certainly don’t buy one of those based on it’s safety ratings.

    I think I’ll save my Ferrari money for a wiser investment. :)

  5. CW

    Reminds me of how the Andromeda Strain hyper-evolved into a non-lethal virus. But I agree, lethal mutagenesis sounds way cooler.

  6. Stew

    Awesome to see you tackling this area of research! I can’t help but hope you’ll exercise your explanatory skill on the fascinating set of underlying concepts:

    Error catastrophe, quasispecies, ship of Theseus…

    Well, maybe that last one is waxing a bit outside of science, but nevertheless very relevant. Intriguing how blurry line between theoretical biology and information theory gets, in this area of inquiry (as is only appropriate, it would seem to me)…

    Great stuff, anyway, as usual–looking forward to more!

  7. Typhoid Larry

    What are you nuts? Start tinkering with pathogenic viruses, and you can create a superflu without even knowing it.

    Female Blacktip Sharks were brought into the Shedd aquarium here in Chicago. No males were introduced, so you can imagine the surprise when a shark pup was born. The females can flip an internal switch and become male when none are present. Nobody knew.

    If rapid mutation will lead to a dead end for a virus, the virus will try to find a way to stay viable. Put that virus in a shedder/ broadcaster and good night Alice.


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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