A potpourri of pieces on science, health, technology and the environment
Thursday, February 22, 2007
Possible Virus X....?
A friend of mine who read my last post has asked, could our "Virus X" be an obesity bug? And if so, might we already be suffering an epidemic?
Indeed, some research suggests that both viruses and bacteria could play a role in weight control:
A recent study in Nature (there's also a related news story in JAMA) found that the balance of two divisions of beneficial gut bacteria, Bacteroidetes and Firmicutes, seems to be important in determining an individual's propensity for obesity.
Nikhil Dhurandhar, a researcher at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana, and Richard Atkinson, a pathologist at Virginia Commonwealth University, are studying the link between human adenovirus AD-36 and obesity (they co-founded the obesity research company Obetech). Dhurandar found that AD-36 causes obesity in chickens and rats, and that some obese people also carry this virus. (He coined the term "infectobesity.")
Another study (co-authored by Atkinson) has found that AD-37, an adenovirus closely related to AD-36, also causes weight gain in chickens.
If the cure for obesity is as simple as immunization against a group of adenoviruses, well, I'll eat my running shoes. In all seriousness, though, the idea that microbes could play a role in weight control is not actually that surprising to me—I recently read a fascinating book that makes me think that perhaps infections play a role in more things than we realize.
Looking for a thriller to read? It may have been published ten years ago, but Frank Ryan's Virus X: Tracking the New Killer Plagues is exactly that—what's even more terrifying is that it is non-fiction. If you're interested, you can read my review of it, published a few days ago on Scienceline.
My first article in The Scientist about the use of war metaphors has prompted some interesting discussion. My piece in a nutshell: some scientists believe the use of such metaphors—examples being the "war against superbugs" and the characterization of "invasive species"—is evidence of a certain way of thinking that might limit how scientists approach particular fields.
Some people felt that my article was "alarmist." While I don't think that someone working to "conquer" cancer will literally think of himself as a soldier in the lab, I do think that the use of military language is sometimes indicative that scientists and doctors are approaching an issue or problem from a limited perspective, and that this could be a big problem.
For example, when it comes to virology, most scientists focus on the microbes that cause disease. The majority of viruses, however, live symbiotically or mutualistically with their hosts, causing no harm. We know very little about these viruses because we haven't studied them, but they could harbor some pretty interesting secrets: for example, studies suggest that symbiotic viruses protect some monkeys infected with SIV, the primate version of HIV, from developing AIDS. So shouldn't we be studying symbiotic viruses more than we are? Not if we're only interested in those that we want to kill.
Perhaps one of the most important changes we can make is to supercede the 20th-century metaphor of war for describing the relationship between people and infectious agents. A more ecologically informed metaphor, which includes the germs'-eye view of infection, might be more fruitful. Consider that microbes occupy all of our body surfaces. Besides the disease-engendering colonizers of our skin, gut, and mucous membranes, we are host to a poorly cataloged ensemble of symbionts to which we pay scant attention. Yet they are equally part of the superorganism genome with which we engage the rest of the biosphere.
I certainly wasn't trying to create a panic with my piece, but I do think that every once and a while, it's important to re-think how we are approach and perceive issues—so that we can, as they say, think outside the box. Or maybe even realize there is no box at all.
A group of researchers led by a Lehigh professor have won a $200,000 prize for coming up with a way to remove arsenic from well water. Let's hope it's viable, because as I've mentioned before, here and here, arsenic is a huge problem--not just in third world countries, but even right in our own backyards.
I apologize for not having posted this week. I feel almost a motherly obligation to you, and believe me, each day that passes in which I don't fulfill your needs tugs at my heartstrings.... Okay, enough of that. Seriously, though, I apologize. At least it's for a good reason: I just got my first few freelance gigs last week, so I've been reporting and writing my butt off. Eek!
I don't really have much to say, except about the topics on which I've been reporting, but I figure I can just post a link to the stories once they get published. So instead, I'll do what every blogger is entitled to do every once and a while: babble.
I found more evidence last night that I'm my mother's daughter. My Mom (and sister) suffer from vasovagal syncope, a predilection for fainting that is triggered, in their cases, by discussions about or glimpses of—for lack of a better way to say it—anything subcutaneous (e.g. don't tell them the intimate details of your recent surgery, or they'll pass out). Because of this, they have to lie down when they have their blood drawn, because they usually faint during the process.
I've never had a problem with this, and kind of considered myself the She-Ra of the family because of it. Well, not so fast, my body told me last night. A close friend of mine was telling me the details of a medical procedure she had done yesterday—I'll spare you a recap, especially since doing so could leave me slumped on the floor—and suddenly I felt intensely nauseous. I excused myself and got up, thinking I might throw up, but when I did, I found myself so dizzy I had to lie down instead. Five minutes later, I was fine; but needless to say, I didn't ask her to finish the story.
Very bizarre, that is—especially since the phenomenon is, from what I can tell, entirely psychological (the syndrome itself can have physical triggers; it's just that my familial version seems to be entirely psychosomatic).
Anyway, so that was the most exciting thing that has happened to me in the last 24 hours. I am not infallible!! Dammit.
I am a freelance science journalist based in New York City -- in other words, I live in the most expensive city in the world without a steady income. I have written for publications including Seed, The Scientist, the Boston Globe, Wired and Scientific American. Check out my website at http://www.melindawenner.com.