TWiV 295 letters

Ryan writes:

Vincent and the TWiVome,

Fantastic discussion last week (TWiV 294) on biosafety, security, gain-of-function work etc. It appears that this debate isn’t going away anytime soon. I thought I would share our strategy of “molecular biocontainment” where target sites for miRNAs expressed in humans, but not experimental models, are inserted into influenza (Langlois and Albrecht et al Nat Biotech 2013). This system would then prevent spread from the laboratory into the human population. While not suitable for all situations this strategy could potentially offer a solutions to some of the concerns being raised. I would love to hear the TWiV teams thoughts.

Best regards,

Ryan

Neil writes:

Dear TWiV Hosts,

I am behind in listening to episodes of TWiV, but I took note of the discussion, during TWiV 280, of the commentary by Ferris Jabr on the concept of “life.” As Vincent may recall from early last year, I engaged in a brief correspondence with him regarding the living/non-living status of viruses due to the online poll on the TWiV site. This correspondence prompted me to write about the issue for the Evolution & Medicine Review (evmedreview.com) for which I contribute posts on a roughly monthly basis. This piece is at: http://evmedreview.com/?p=1508.

By the way, I am utterly unconvinced by Jabr’s argument. I am confident that if someone transformed one of his loved ones from meeting the putatively culturally determined criteria for “alive” into meeting the putatively culturally determined criteria for “not alive,” he would recognize the change as of real significance independent of cultural factors. Of course, in medical practice defining this boundary precisely, however vexing, is of great practical significance.

I also took note of Vincent’s mention of a disagreement he had with Carl Zimmer. Last year I published a brief essay (attached) that takes note of a claim by Carl Zimmer during an interview on “Fresh Air” with a guest host, that bacteria were more similar to human cells than were viruses. I exploit this questionable assertion to explore the complexities of the idea of similarity. The arguments I offer may also be relevant to the issue of defining life.

Not directly related to the preceding, I have a question. Many years ago I heard Eckard Wimmer give a lecture about his studies on polioviruses. As best as I can recall, he mentioned that a portion of the poliovirus genome of one serotype encoding one of the gene products was closer in sequence to a comparable region of a non-poliovirus picornavirus than to the corresponding sequences of polioviruses of the other two serotypes. This relationship made me wonder if what we call polioviruses are just picornaviruses that happened to have evolved neurovirulence. If so, and if public health officials eventually succeed in eradicating current polioviruses, how likely do you think it would be for some other picornavirus to evolve neurovirulence and re-create a polio-like illness?

Finally, did TWiV take note of the 40th anniversary this past April 19th of the discovery of MHC restriction of T-cell recognition, generally attributed to Peter Doherty (disclosure: my Ph.D. thesis advisor) and Rolf Zinkernagel for their work on the murine CTL response to lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV). Although there were some similar earlier findings with what we later termed CD4+ T cells, Doherty and Zinkernagel were the ones who most clearly interpreted the phenomenon and related it to explaining the extensive polymorphism of MHC genes. This advance had an enormous impact on immunology and especially viral immunology.

Best regards,

Neil Greenspan
Case Western Reserve University

Chris writes:

Dear wonderful TWIV hosts,

I loved the discussion of the “Rescuing Biomedical Research” paper from TWIV 282, and I’m curious to hear your opinions on some thoughts. The paper notes the surplus of excellent biomedical researchers being churned out of PhD programs and the hypercompetitive system it has produced that is not healthy for the field of biomedical research.

I came across a different paper the other day that reviews a collaboration between Tufts Medical School and the Boston Public Schools to bring new biology curricula to the public high schools.
(http://journals.lww.com/academicmedicine/Fulltext/2013/05000/The_Great_Diseases_Project___A_Partnership_Between.22.aspx). Their overarching goal was to increase scientific literacy and influence health-related decisions. The new curriculum focuses on what they consider the “Great Diseases” (infectious diseases, neurological disorders, metabolic disease, and cancer), and is structured on the premise that by providing content more relevant to student’s lives they will both increase student engagement and increase student health literacy. As a public high school employee myself, I can attest to how uninspired some of the current science curricula is and the disinterest it generates, so this is addressing a real problem. It is also amazing how human biology and disease is such a minor part of high school science, (at least in Washington State) even though it is a massively relevant topic. I am curious if any of you have seen studies looking for a correlation between knowledge of human biology and healthy lifestyle choices; this paper never states it explicitly but I would imagine that the correlation is not zero, which could provide an inexpensive way of improving public health.

Given the successes described in the paper, I am curious if you see any potential for the expansion of biomedical science and scientists into high schools. In this case all of the participating high school teachers were paired with a biomedical expert who they were trained by and could contact to ensure they were presenting correct material. I’m sure there are a myriad of other ways similar collaborations could play out as well, maybe with even more direct involvement in the school by biomedical experts.

As a biomedical-expert-hopeful, (I am currently applying to medical school) with a passion for teaching, I imagine there are at least some similarly minded people in the biomedical sciences. Seems to me like this kind of model has the potential to be a big win for the education system, public health, science communication, and could ease at least some of the burden stressing the current biomedical research system. Thoughts?

The weather here in Seattle is currently 16 degrees C with – surprise – a chance of rain. Thank you for all that you do, you are educating and inspiring a new generation of scientists like myself.

Kathryn writes:

Hello esteemed TWiV team:

I heard about this on the Nature podcast (http://www.nature.com/news/policy-nih-to-balance-sex-in-cell-and-animal-studies-1.15195).

How is this going to affect virology research given the common usage of the HeLa cell line? Will it only be relevant for researchers working on drug development? Is there any reason to think that topics such as viral attachment or receptor identification (two things I can think of off the top of my head) would be affected by the sex of the cells?

Thanks for your thoughts on this. Love the podcast and I look forward to Sundays so I can get my TWiV fix.

Jon writes:

Colorado Springs rodeo canceled due to horse herpes case http://gazette.com/colorado-springs-rodeo-canceled-due-to-horse-herpes-case/article/1520326?custom_click=rss

Mark Martin writes:

For all you cartoon bacteriophage fans (phans?), I found this:
http://averagebacteriophage.tumblr.com

Konrad writes:

Hiya TWiV,

Just a listener pick for you: Scholarpedia – the peer-reviewed encyclopaedia. I was wondering if you’ve heard of it and if you’re interested.

http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/Main_Page

Right now there aren’t nearly as many topics as on wikipedia, but it looks promising to me and might be worth keeping an eye on.

Bye for now,
-Konrad