Nathan Wolfe and viral forecasting

This post is part of a series from the TED 2009 conference held in Long Beach, California from February 4-8th. You can read other posts in the series here, and the TED site will release video from the talk in the coming weeks or months. Because I’m putting these posts together very quickly, I will get things wrong, will misspell names and bungle details. Please feel free to use the comments thread on this post to offer corrections. You may also want to follow the conference via Twitter or through other blogs tagged as on Technorati.

Nathan Wolfe takes the stage, making a Bill Gates joke. Referencing Gates’s stunt of opening a jar of mosquitoes on stage, he opens an empty jar and makes a show of pushing the contents out… this is what passes for humor with viral researchers.

Wolfe studies “viral chatter”, the spread of virii between species. Specifically, he’s interested in the spread from animal species to humans via bushmeat, the spread that allowed HIV to cross from primates to humans and caused the AIDS epidemic. He knows that HIV existed in Congo-Brazzaville as early as the 1920s, but it crossed and spread decades later. If we can understand viral crossing, we may be able to anticipate what new diseases we face.

Studying viral chatter means studying the Bushmeat trade. Wolfe focuses not on bushmeat – forest animals like monkeys killed and eaten for meat – being sold in urban markets, but on bushmeat eaten for survival by extremely poor and marginal people. It’s madness to blame bushmeat on poor hunters, he argues – we need to understand the systems that make this food insecurity widespread and mean that hundreds of thousands of people are forced to hunt and eat monkeys.

Hunting bushmeat means lots of blood contact between hunters and their primate prey. That’s a huge opportunity for virii to cross over. With his late mentor Don Burke and huge teams in Cameroon, he’s been studying hunters, sampling their blood, and identifying virii that cross between species. This requires a huge amount of trust and cooperation. The key to his team’s success, he believes, is Paul DeLong Minutu, a health reporter from Cameroonian TV and radio. Everyone knew his voice, which gave him a great ability to ask hard questions… like “can I have some blood, please?”

Wolfe’s team has discovered several brand-new retroviruses, viruses in the same family as HIV. This is important because, as he explains, what starts in Central Africa no longer remains in Central Africa. Virii travel, using the logging roads in the region and the global air networks. So Wolfe is starting the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative, attempting to track new diseases as they cross species, before they become human crises. The center in Cameroon monitors thousands of hunters, but we need a much wider network, capable of monitoring the wild animal markets in Southeast Asia where SARS emerged, and other viral hotspots around the globe.

“The goal is to track diseases before they hit bloodbanks, airplanes, sexual networks.” This tracking may be a tool not just for preventing the next AIDS epidemic, but for preventing cancers, like cervical cancer which has a viral origin.

If this idea wasn’t big enough, Wolfe offers two others. Based on his study of virii, he believes that humans are – understandably enough – surface parochialists. The interesting stuff, he believes, is under the surface of the planet. “We should be looking not for life on Mars, but life in Mars.”

He also posits a brain-bending thought experiment – can we calcuate how much life we should expect to see in a drop of water based on estimating the density of genetic codes? Can we then compare this to what we actually see and somehow detect biological “dark matter”? I don’t fully understand the idea, but Wolfe believes it could lead us to new directions to explore for life on and off our planet – “If you want to study life outside the earth, you may need to study microbiology and virology.”

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6 Responses to Nathan Wolfe and viral forecasting

  1. Lova says:

    Hi Ethan,

    Thank you for sharing the details of the proceedings so quickly, it seems fascinating.

    Is the question posed in the last paragraph what is the minimum amount of nucleic acids necessary to produce enzymes and therefore potentially generate non-cellular lives?

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  6. Amit Patel says:

    To detect non-DNA-based life we need a definition of life, possibly related to energy or entropy. In that drop of water we calculate expected entropy (or energy) if it’s all non-living and expected entropy based on all observed organisms (DNA-based). Then we measure the entropy/energy in there and see if it matches what we expect. If it doesn’t, there may be processes in there that we don’t understand — processes that could be considered “life”.

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