Steven Barritz (left) and Travis Bautista pose with their brand new copies of the revised edition of Parasite Rex with a new epilogue. I’ll be sending them an autographed book plate. If you’d like one, here are the steps:
1. Buy a copy.
2. Email me a picture of yourself with the book (it’s marked “with a new epilogue”).
3. I’ll reply to your email and we’ll make arrangements to send you an autographed book plate. (You’ll need to cover the cost of the postage and plate, which should be about a buck.)
Brian Malow and I talked yesterday about some of my favorite things on the latest episode of Dr. Kiki’s Science Hour–including the evolution odometer. You can watch it on Youtube, or you can head over to Dr. Kiki’s Science Hour site to download the video or audio. (The Skype goes berserk briefly, but we get back on track.)
In 1996 I had just turned thirty. If you had told me at the time that parasites were about to become an integral part of my life for years to come, I would have said, “Oh, look at the time! I’ve got to go feed my hyrax!” and headed for the nearest restroom to scrub my hands.
But it would have been true. I just had finished my first book, and I was wondering what to write next. I had a couple vague ideas I bounced around with my agent over lunch. How about an exploration of the intersection of biology and philosophy? A blank look. How about a book about parasites? Boom: my agent sat up.
That decision led me to some interesting places: rebel-held territory in southern Sudan, a Costa Rican jungle, a salt marsh in California, and the official United States Parasite Collection. And not too long afterwards, I finished writing Parasite Rex.
The book has thrived ever since. Recently, my publisher decided to put out a new paperback edition, to celebrate the ten year anniversary of the original paperback. I’ve written an epilogue for the new edition, in which I reflect on the experience of writing–and living with–the book. It made blind dates a bit awkward, to say the least, but it also gave me a piece of tapeworm eternity: Anthrobothrium zimmeri.
This is the first time I’ve had a reissued book come out, so I’m thinking of ways to mark the occasion. (If anybody is inspired to invite me on their radio show, you know where to find me!)
Here’s one plan I have. If you’d like me to autograph the new edition, follow these steps:
1. Buy a copy.
2. Email me a picture of yourself with the new edition (it’s got “with a new epilogue” in red at the bottom).
3. I’ll reply to your email and we’ll make arrangements to send you an autographed book plate. (You’ll need to cover the cost of the plate and postage; I still have to figure out the cost, but I assume it should be in the neighborhood of $1.)
Here’s one mock-up I’ve been playing around with. Any other suggestions?
[Update: Buy link fixed.]
I’ve got two stories in the New York Times tomorrow, at two ends of life’s scales.
In the cover story, I write about smiles. Faces have long fascinated me (see this Discover column on Darwin and Botox), and so I was intrigued to come across this recent paper focusing on smiles in particular. I talked to David Corcoran about the story for the first twelve minutes of the latest Science Times podcast.
Elsewhere in the Science Times, I keep up with the creepiest form of life out there: infectious cancer. Two species–Tasmanian devils and dogs–have given rise to cancer cells that can hop from host to host. I wrote about Tasmanian devils in the Times, and about dogs here at the Loom. Now there’s news that the dog cancer (which I want to call Canis cancer after talking to the scientists who study it) rejuvenates itself from time to time by stealing its host’s mitochondria. This is a story that just keeps going and going…like the cancer themselves.
The nightmare that is the cholera epidemic of Haiti (2,100 dead so far) has become a little less mysterious. Haiti has not seen cholera for over a cenutry, and so the emergence of cholera in recent weeks has puzzled scientists and led to riots directed at the U.N. for supposedly bringing Vibrio cholerae to the Caribbean nation. Others have pointed to a New World strain as a potential culprit. It triggered an outbreak in Peru in 1991, and has circulated in Central and South America ever since. Perhaps these bacteria washed up on Haiti’s shores.
In the latest issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, Matthew Waldor of Harvard and his colleagues go some distance to settling the debate by finding the Haitian cholera’s place in the tree of life.
“Collectively, our data strongly suggest that the Haitian epidemic began with introduction of a V. cholerae strain into Haiti by human activity from a distant geographic source,” the scientists write. The bacteria belong to a strain that evolved in South Asia. It was probably introduced onto Haiti by a sick person who flew there. We may never know who made the delivery, but it was a terrible blow not just to Haiti but perhaps to other New World countries. The South Asian strain is, unfortunately, deadlier than the Peru strain and resistant to antibiotics to boot. Waldor and his colleagues warn that unless the bacteria are stopped now, they could outcompete the milder Peru strain.
“Clearly, the provision of adequate sanitation and clean water is essential for preventing the further spread of the Haitian cholera epidemic,” they write. Let’s hope we can prune future branches of this deadly tree.
Recently I paid a visit to a place where the world’s most mysterious viruses go to find a name. The result was my profile of Ian Lipkin of Columbia University for tomorrow’s New York Times. I first started thinking about this story when I heard Lipkin give a lecture about his work identifying unknown viruses this spring. And when I read this review of Lipkin’s, entitled simply, “Microbe Hunting,” I knew it was time to get cracking.
One thing I didn’t have room for is the fact that Lipkin has gone all Hollywood. By which I mean that he’s helping Steven Soderbergh on a new movie on a virus outbreak called Contagion, starring Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, and other big stars. Lipkin seems pretty stoked about the movie, which is slated for 2011, so I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for it.
Scientists have known for decades that the genomes of animals can sometimes harbor DNA from the viruses that have infected them. When I first learned of this fact some years ago, it blew my mind. The notion that any animal could be a little bit viral blurred nature’s boundaries.
The viruses that scientists discovered in host genomes were of a particular sort, known as endogenous retroviruses. Retroviruses, which include HIV and a number of viruses that can trigger cancer, have to insert their genetic material into their host’s genome in order to reproduce. The cell reads their genetic instructions along with its own, and then builds new viruses. It made a certain intuitive sense that retroviruses might sometimes get trapped in their host genomes, to be passed down from one generation to the next.
The first endogenous retroviruses scientists identified were still relatively functional. Under certain circumstances, their genes could still give rise to new viruses that could break out of their host cell. But gradually, scientists identified more and more fossil viruses, which had mutated so much that they could no longer reproduce. As I wrote in the New York Times in 2006, scientists have even figured out how to resurrect these fossil viruses from the human genome.
That would have been weird enough. But nature is generous with its weirdness. As I wrote in the Times earlier this year, scientists have started finding viral stretches of DNA in our genomes that are not retroviruses. In that article, I focused on the discovery of genes from bornaviruses, which just park themselves next to our DNA, rather than inserting their genes into our own.
New kinds of endogenous viruses keep turning up as scientists looked closer. Today in the journal PLOS Genetics, Aris Katzourakis of the University of Oxford and Robert Gifford of New York University offer a particularly startling survey of the viral world within. Rather than searching for one particular kind of virus, they hunted for a wide range of them. Their collection reflected all the different ways that viruses can replicate inside mammal cells. They then hunted for the sequences of these viruses in the genomes of 44 mammal species, plus a handful of birds and invertebrates. The scientists struck viral gold. Every major group of viruses turned up in the host genomes.
In most cases, the viruses infected their own host. But the scientists also found mammal viruses integrated into the genomes of ticks and mosquitoes–perhaps as a result of their feeding on virus-infected mammal blood. In many cases, viruses slipped into their host genomes a long, long time ago. The scientists discovered segments of bornavirus present not just in humans, but in monkeys from the Old World and New World. We share a common ancestor with monkeys that lived some 54 million years ago. What’s more, one of these bornavirus segments is very similar in many of its hosts today. That uniformity suggests that it has taken on a useful function in our own bodies. Scientists have already found evidence that endogenous viruses can help build placentas and fight off other viruses; now bornaviruses can be added to the list.
This is one of those exploding fields that is a joy to follow. I’m glad that this new paper came out before I had to turn in my proofs for my next book, called A Planet of Viruses, which will be coming out in May. But I’m sure that the catalog of inner viruses will be growing a lot longer in years to come.
I’m going to be a guest on Road Dog Trucking Radio, the satellite radio channel for truckers. I’m going to talk about parasites, viruses, and other weird critters. Even if you don’t drive a big rig, you’re welcome to tune in.