Monday, December 13, 2010

Genomics Project: Nathan Wolfe's Jungle Search For Viruses


HIV---Human immunodefiency virus, a virus that causes the immune system in humans to fail
bush meat---animals that are killed for subsistence purposes; usually refers to birds or monkeys
retrovirus---RNA viruses that infect animal cells; family includes AIDS
poxvirus---largerst known viruses; responsible for a wide range of diseases; develops within the cytoplasm of the infected cell


Nathan Wolfe is renowned for his work and advancements in the study of viruses. Wolfe attended both Harvard and Stanford. He is now an American virologist who works as a Biology professor at Stanford University. Ambitious in nature, Nathan Wolfe wants to reform the system of global disease control. He wants to use the tools that are currently at his disposal to create an early warning system that can forecast and contain new diseases before they kill millions. His is intrigued in cultures and societies that are in frequent contact with dead animals. Those people, he believes, are the most exposed to viruses and diseases. He wants to determine the rates that animal diseases are crossing over to humans. Wolfe is also very passionate about stopping the viruses from reaching urban blood banks, where diseases can be spread at alarming rates. Wolfe was even recently placed in the Rolling Stone "Top 100 Agents of Change". Change is exactly what Wolfe is trying to accomplish so viruses no longer become epidemics but rather mere flare ups seen only occasionally.


Nathan Wolfe has a very ambitious goal: to end the threat of pandemics. In this video, Wolfe addresses this goal with enthusiasm and pizazz, along with several ways to achieve it. Wolfe understands that most epidemics originate with animals, which is why he spends his time studying cultures that come into frequent contact with them. He visits countries like Cameroon and the Congo, where interaction with dead animals is high. It is in societies like these that see the first signs of disease, which is why Wolfe travels there to learn how to prevent it from spreading to the large urbanized areas. The blood from the animals comes into contact with the hunters, thus initiating the process of disease expansion. Because there is virtually no gobal disease monitoring system, once an outbreak gains momentum, it is nearly impossible to stop. Wolfe envisions a global network of disease monitoring that would be used for the benefit and growth of mankind, and to prevent the emergence of retroviruses similar to HIV and Ebola from ever surfacing again.

Interdependence in Nature:

Around the world, animals rely on one another for survival. Rodents and small herbivores depend on elephants to knock down trees, making vegetation more accessible. Small birds feed off the bacteria and bugs that live on the backs of hippos. Humans in many parts of the world, particularly Africa and Asia, rely on animals for sustenance. However these dependencies have their consequences. In many societies, like the ones in Cameroon and the Congo, people are in constant contact with dead animals. These people have very few possessions and are very poor by our standards. They hunt for survival, and as a consequence, their exposure to retroviruses, such as HIV, drastically increases. As seen in the video, the hunters that go out looking for food or "bush meat" are hardly concerned with obtaining a virus because of the few precautions they take. They frequently interact with dead animals, so it is hardly a surprise that new viruses emerge in these cultures. Nathan Wolfe recognizes that most viruses originate with animals, which is why it is necessary to solve the problem at the initial point of contact, rather than to solve it later on. Hunters in Africa can receive a virus and overtime it transfers from one person to another until it reaches a large urban area. If this happens, an epidemic would be nearly impossible to stop because the virus would have evolved drastically since its first carrier. How ever dangerous a virus outbreak might be, Wolfe understands that these impoverished societies cannot simply abandon their traditional ways of life. These people survive due to the hunting of these animals, and that will not change, which is why the way people approach the monitoring needs to. In a sense, it is a double edged sword. Poor villages like the ones in Africa hunt animals for food and for survival, yet in doing so they increase their risk of acquiring a harmful virus. Organisms rarely exist alone, and constantly depend on one another for many facets of life. The most severe problem is the emergence of new retroviruses like HIV, and this problem will only grow more serious as frequent interaction occurs.

Science, Technology & Society

It was through scientific research that scientists learned more about the effects of harmful retroviruses like HIV. Technological innovations have had a largely beneficial effect on societies around the globe, particularly ones that come into frequent contact with viruses. Viruses, if not monitored correctly, can spread like wildfire. They can spread fast and with lethal purpose if they reach densely populated areas. Viruses evolve and adapt quickly, which is why technology used to counteract viruses needs to be just as fast. Without advanced technology in poor areas like central Asia and parts of Africa, dangerous viruses like HIV may emerge again. Wolfe has acknowledged that most viruses originate with animals and are then transmitted to humans. Lethal diseases like influenza, yellow fever, Ebola, rabies, and HIV have all come from animals. He is leading a large worldwide effort to introduce technology in the areas where this contact is especially high. Nathan Wolfe has the ambitious goal of eventually establishing 20 stations to monitor the emergence of viruses around the world. These new stations would provide a worldwide forecast to monitor and contain new diseases before they kill thousands. The current system to monitor the development of viruses is in the Stone Age according to Wolfe, and he believes that by addressing this, the world can become much safer. Wolfe spent 10 years in central Africa working with local tribes and scientists to better understand the transfer of viruses from animals to humans. He also spent time educating the people on how to process data, acquire samples, and monitor harmful diseases. In the video it shows a picture of the dramatic transformation one of the science labs had over those years. It went from an empty room, inadequate to perform basic scientific operations, to a highly innovative lab filled with advanced technological equipment. Technology must lead the way in the fight against epidemics and in order to win the fight, new technology has to be established in the areas most severely affected. Advancements in science and technology have been purely beneficial in the struggle against viruses, and will provide the world with a safety net to prevent lethal diseases from becoming global epidemics.