New virus is lethal, but flu viruses are always unpredictable, author says.
for National Geographic News, April 8, 2013
DECEMBER 2012. SERENGETI NATIONAL PARK, TANZANIA
The wildebeest genome is an extremely efficient recipe for turning grass into meat. Wildebeest may not be the smartest animals on four hooves but you've got to give them that. And the greater Serengeti ecosystem is where this grass-to-meat transformation manifests in its most spectacular abundance. Roughly 1.5 million wildebeest inhabit the Serengeti, migrating seasonally, following the rains and the new greenery and other enticements, circling around from their calving grounds on the eastern plains, across the Mara River and up into Kenya, back down into Tanzania and eastward again, like a vast whirlpool of flesh. Predators follow the wildebeest. Scavengers following the predators. Calves, with desperate attention, follow their mothers. Males follow females. All this makes Serengeti National Park one of the best of all earthly places to contemplate the poignant interconnectedness of sex and birth and life and death.
That's why I was there: on assignment for National Geographic to research a story about mortality and lions. Late one recent afternoon, I stepped out of a Land Rover near the crest of a broad, gentle rise. The vehicle's driver, my traveling companion, was Daniel Rosengren, a tough and savvy young Swede employed as a field assistant by
the Serengeti Lion Project, a long-term study run by Dr. Craig Packer. I wanted to make a cell-phone call, and Daniel had brought me up to one of the high spots where I might find coverage for my Tanzanian SIM card. We were surrounded by grass in all directions, a few distant acacias and kopjes, and a mere several thousand wildebeest. The animals continued eating as I phoned home.
Standing 30 feet away from your vehicle is not recommended in the Serengeti (matter of fact, it may be prohibited by park rules) because of the lions. But the pride we'd been radio-tracking seemed to be somewhere else. And with so much alternative prey all around, I figured the odds of my getting predated were pretty low. My call went through, but it was mid-morning of a Friday back in Montana, and my wife seemed to be away from her phone. I left a message. The wildebeest are magnificent, the lions are splendid, the story is progressing, and I love you, I said. She has lived in Africa, and I knew she could add the vast panorama of savanna and sunlit acacias from memory. I climbed back into the Land Rover, and Daniel pointed us toward camp.
AUGUST 2012. BANGALORE
I flew into Bangalore, at the invitation of my old friend Ravi Chellam, to participate in the Student Conference on Conservation Science, held there during the first week of August. It had been ten years or so--I don't recall exactly, but too long--since my last trip to India. Great to see Ravi and his wife Bhooma, and to meet so many bright, intellectually hungry, poised and confident young conservation biologists. They were enough to give you hope for the future--which is something I don't say lightly. During the four days of the conference I heard some very smart and useful talks, including one by Umesh Srinivasan, on understory bird populations in logged habitat, which eventually received a prize for best of the conference. But I wasn't just there to listen; they put me to work, doing one plenary lecture (on zoonotic diseases, derived from my Spillover research) and two workshops (on science writing for the general public). The event culminated, on Saturday evening, with a plenary talk by Bittu Sahgal, another old friend of both mine and Ravi's. Bittu was empassioned and inspirational, as ever. In closing, he told the next generation of conservation biologists: "I wish you curiosity. And I wish you courage."
Immediately following the SCCS meeting, also in Bangalore, was another: The bi-annual meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology, Asia branch. Again, hundreds of bright young (and some senior) biologists, not just from India but from all over the region, including Indonesia, Mauritius, and China. Those sessions, plus a good meeting with the tiger biologist Ullas Karanth, plus a quick trip over to Chennai, where I did two more lectures and toured the Madras Crocodile Bank, went far toward filling out this two-week India visit. They worked me hard (I think it was four lectures, four workshops, and a panel in nine days) and treated me well (plenty of fine Indian food, and I scarcely was allowed to pull out my wallet). I stayed in a guest-house apartment at the National Center for Biological Sciences, an impressive institution full of researchers and grad students, where my primary host was Sanjay Sane, a brainy and very congenial investigator of the neurophysiology of insect flight. Another important new contact was Anil Ananthaswamy, science journalist and author of The Edge of Physics, with whom I co-taught a workshop at NCBS. With friends like all these, I've just got to get back there more frequently.
Put it on your list. India is one of the most richly engaging, wondrous, and friendly countries in the world. It's also a crucial place: largest democracy in the world, remember, plus a repository of much biological diversity.
NOVEMBER 2011. CHICAGO
Greg Dwyer is a mathematical ecologist, based at the University of Chicago, who studies outbreak populations of forest insects. His work involves trying to understand the extreme boom-and-bust cycles of species such as the gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar), which explodes occasionally into huge infestations, defoliates trees throughout a region, and then suddenly crashes. After a period of years at low population, another gypsy moth outbreak begins, the numbers increase suddenly and grotesquely, the infestation peaks for a year or two—and then comes another crash. The main factor driving the crash phase of the cycle is viral infection, killing gypsy moths like a medieval plague. That's why I recently went to see Dwyer at his office on the UC campus. I thought his research and his ideas might help inform the final chapter of my book in progress, which concerns the ecology and evolution of scary viruses—the ones that kill humans, not gypsy moths. The book will appear next year, under the title Spillover.
Dwyer is a rare combination: a highly sophisticated math guy who creates mathematical models of ecological processes, and a field man who still goes into the forest, collecting his own data. He also runs a lab, in which he and his grad students and postdocs can watch the moth-virus interaction in its excruciating stages. The virus in question is called nucleopolyhedrovirus (NPV). There's a whole group of NPVs, some infecting such other forest insects as the Douglas-fir tussock moth and the Western tent caterpillar. This one is specifically adapted to kill gypsy moths. It consumes them from within, it dissolves them, it virtually melts them down—the way Ebola virus supposedly (but not in reality, only in the pop literature of Ebola hype) melts a human body. For a gypsy moth, it's no hype. "They pick up the virus," Dwyer told me, "they go splat on a leaf."
Then he showed me. In the basement of the biology building, he unlocked a door to what he called "the dirty room" of his lab complex and invited me in. From an incubator, one of his postdocs pulled out a plastic container of gypsy moth caterpillars, which had been thriving and growing on a medium of caterpillar chow until, two weeks earlier, they were artificially infected with NPV. Splat.
During our chat in his office, I had questioned Dwyer about what I call The Analogy: Does our human population on Earth, now standing at 7 billion, resemble an outbreak population of forest insects? If so, should we expect that a pathogen as lethal and hungry as NPV will come along, sooner or later, and knock us back down to size? Dwyer is a careful scientist, rigorous but thoughtful. He considered the question. He drew graphs on a whiteboard. He paused, then considered the question again. He gave me a complicated, valuable answer, to which I'll try to do justice in the last chapter of my book.
SEPTEMBER 2011. PENDLETON, OREGON.
I've been living what feels like a Dream Vacation this summer: attending some of America's foremost rodeos. In August it was the Omak Stampede in central Washington. A week later I was at Crow Fair, in the town of Crow Agency, Montana. Now I'm here, along with 15,000 exuberant rodeo fans, for the Pendleton Round-Up. All the motels have been booked for months (I was lucky to get a room through the kindness of the Round-Up media folks), and downtown Pendleton looks like a cross between Bourbon Street in New Orleans, Beale Street in Memphis, and a Resistol Hats sales conference in, um, northeastern Oregon. During the day, people actually go watch the rodeo. That finishes in late afternoon, to leave time for partying. Everybody is friendly. The odd things about this particular Dream Vacation are that 1) it's not my dream (it must be somebody else's, misdirected to me through some neuro-ethereal mix-up), and 2) it's not a vacation. I'm on assignment for National Geographic, researching a story on the role of the horse in Native American cultures.
The reason for attending those particular three rodeos has not been to see the bull riding and calf roping and barrel racing, etc., or to raise my cholesterol level on a diet of curly fries and pulled pork. The reason is that Omak, Crow Fair, and Pendleton all feature certain equestrian events that are uniquely embraced by Native American riders today. In Omak, it's the Suicide Race (or, as its organizers prefer to bill it, the World Famous Suicide Race), details of which I'll leave to your imagination, at least for now. At Crow Fair, and also here at Pendleton, it's the Indian Relay, a wonderfully frantic race that involves three fast circuits of the track, dead stops, leaping dismounts and re-mounts, and nothing so superfluous as a saddle. Again, more on that later, maybe, in the magazine piece. My purpose here is merely to share with you the image of one magnificent horse I was fortunate enough to meet during these travels.
His name is Chinook. He's a black-and-white Paint, a gelding, owned by Rusty Black of Pendleton and ridden each evening, by a big Blackfeet man named Ray McDonald, in the Happy Canyon Indian Pageant and Wild West Show. Happy Canyon is a shamelessly oldfangled nightly pageant, held in a special arena beside the rodeo grounds, and it certainly must be the closest thing to Bill Cody's old traveling show that 21st century America has to offer. Chinook alone is worth the price of admission. The show begins with Ray McDonald, at about 6'3" and 240 pounds, in his war bonnet and other regalia, riding the pied Paint onstage atop a high catwalk in the Happy Canyon scenery. The show ends with Chinook and Ray featured again, in a tight spotlight, while the national anthem plays. Corny, yes, and somewhat politically oxymoronic (given the history of relations between Native Americans and the U.S. of A.)—but it works. The night I saw them, Chinook was so spirited that I thought he might leap straight down into the orchestra pit. But Ray controlled him, and together they cast quite a presence.
When I met the horse next day, in his stall, he indulged me to stroke his neck. I spoke with Ray McDonald, who said of this awesome animal: "He feeds off the crowd." On his left side, as you can see, Chinook has a black eyespot and, within it, a brown eye. That side is what shows when he makes his first entrance. On the right side, his face is white and his eye is blue with a rim of pink. So he seems a little oxymoronic himself. A classic Indian pony, though owned by a white woman. A badass when seen in left profile, a much milder creature as viewed from the right. Born to star but humble. He doesn't sign autographs.
JANUARY 2011. KINSHASA AND POINTS EAST.
Lots of field time in the Congo for me this year. The forests are wonderful; the people are likable; the cities, the logistics, and the politics are . . . ugh, challenging. As you probably know, there are two countries known loosely as "the Congo": the Republic of the Congo, north of the big river, with its capital at Brazzaville; and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), south of the river, with its capital at Kinshasa. In past years, during the Megatransect and later outings, my Congo travel has always been north of the river. This year I've spent seven weeks south of the river, getting a taste of DRC. My main purpose has been to research a story on the bonobo, Pan paniscus, a species of primate sometimes (misleadingly) called the pygmy chimpanzee. That's a work in progress for National Geographic. I've spent time in the forest with several bonobo researchers, including Gottfried Hohmann (who has studied them for decades) and Tetsuya Sakamaki, following wild but habituated groups. In such situations, we've kept a respectable distance (ten yards, at least) from the animals and, when relatively close, worn surgical masks to lessen the chance of infecting them with some human bug.
If you've ever worn a surgical mask while trying to run through an equatorial rainforest, get air to your lungs, and keep your glasses from fogging up, you'll appreciate how much Gottfried and Tetsuya and their colleagues care about these creatures.
I also spent a day at the Lola ya Bonobo refuge on the outskirts of Kinshasa. It's an orphanage and halfway house for bonobos that have been captured, or grown up in captivity, and been rescued by an extraordinary woman named Claudine Andre, who runs the place. Some of those animals are now being released to the wild—under carefully restricted conditions, into habitat empty of other bonobos. The Lola bonobos are quite familiar with human contact. My photographer colleague for this assignment, Christian Ziegler (that's him in the olive fatigues), had spent a week at the refuge before going to the wild and so, by the time I arrived, the more forward animals there were used to him. I was the new guy. They inspected me carefully and then, generously, groomed me. Not even my faithful dermatologist, Brian, has ever looked at my skin more closely.
The pants legs are up, by the way, not to display my nice tan but because the bonobos were curious about my kneecaps.
While delayed in Kinshasa between fieldtrips, I got the chance to add a few crucial pieces to the story of HIV/AIDS for my book on zoonotic diseases.
This is Professor Jean-Marie Kabongo, head of pathology in the Department of Anatomy and Pathology at the University of Kinshasa. I called on him in order to trace an important piece of evidence back to its source. The evidence is a small block of paraffin-preserved tissue, a biopsy specimen that was sliced from a lymph node of a Kinshasa woman in 1960, and stored thereafter at the pathology lab. Almost fifty years later, a molecular biologist at the University of Arizona, Dr. Michael Worobey, screened that sample (among many others) and found it to be HIV-positive. Let me repeat: an HIV-positive woman in Kinshasa in 1960. Worobey sequenced the genome of the sample's virus and named it DRC60. Its existence, its date, and its genetic relationship to other HIV strains have all added surprising new elements to our understanding of how and when the AIDS pandemic began. Worobey's work is part of a complicated tale that I'll tell in the book.
Professor Kabongo's lab still contains many paraffin-embedded pathology samples, though none has so far been revealed to have such significance as DRC60.