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Meet: The Indiana Jones of Microbe Hunting

ARI JACOBS, Staff Writer

Every year, an outstanding individual receives the Roy Chapman Andrews Society Distinguished Explorer Award for scientific exploration and discovery. Due to Andrews’s close ties with Beloit (where he was born and went to college), the award winners present their research and findings at Beloit College. The winner of this year’s award was Nathan Wolfe, the Lorry I. Lokey Visiting Professor of Human Biology at Stanford University and CEO of Global Viral Forecasting. The Indiana Jones of “microbe hunting,” Wolfe is known for tracking down potentially pandemic viruses, bacteria and other microbes to prevent outbreaks. Here is an excerpt from an interview that Round Table had with Wolfe last week:

Round Table: What is the typical day of  microbe hunting?

Nathan Wolfe: Well, there are many different stages of it and it’s very interdisciplinary. It can include everything from working in a rural clinic where everyone is getting sick from a disease we aren’t aware of. It can include going with a hunter into a forested area in central Africa and trying to collect specimens  from the animals that are hunted, as well as the hunters themselves. Sometimes it’s about taking one of those specimens and processing in the laboratory—looking for genetic information that may indicate the presence of a new virus. And sometimes it’s banging away on computers looking for digital signals of a new outbreak.

RT: Would you call yourself  more of  a biologist, or an ecologist, or are the tools just all over the place?

NW: Well, again, it’s very interdisciplinary, but yeah I consider myself a biologist. I’m using any tools that are appropriate, not only tools that have traditionally been used in biology. And I think Andrews seemed  to have done the same thing. He used, for example, automobiles, which you wouldn’t think is a new technology, but at the time it was a new technology that allowed them to get them much deeper into the Gobi [Desert].

RT: What are some personal qualities that are necessary to be the Indiana Jones of  Microbe Hunting?

NW: (Laughs). Well, I don’t know about that, but I think if you’re going to do this sort of work that we do, you have to have the capacity to cooperate with a diverse range of scientists because it’s often that the end product that we produce will include a dozen, or sometimes up to twenty, different scientists that participated in it. Obviously it can be a lot of hard work; you have to patch together a lot of different areas of science. I think that you really have to want to find some of these new viruses in order to be able to accomplish the goals.

RT: How do you actually protect yourself  from the things that you go after?

NW: It’s sort of an interesting thing that we always underestimate the biggest risks. I think the biggest risks for me are not necessarily the viruses that we’re chasing after, because we treat all of our specimens very cautiously. It’s things like car accidents and common diseases like malaria that will really hit us. You just try to be conscience of the kinds of risks you’re taking when you do this sort of work, but a lot of us that do it really love it. Life always includes a little bit of risk.

RT: Do you have a top five of  the microbes you have chased after? Any memorable moments that  put them up there?

NW: Oh sure, I remember early on we discovered a new retrovirus, or a series of retroviruses, that were jumping from animals into humans. We had gone out to look into the origins of HIV, and to see if there were any of these new retroviruses that were jumping into humans. I expected that it was happening, but I thought it was pretty rare. Within the first thousand or so specimens we looked at, we found people who were infected with completely unknown versions of these retroviruses. That was definitely something that was shocking and, from our perspective, a pretty exciting finding.

RT: You said in your book that our knowledge of  pandemics–relative to how much we know in today’s society–is relatively small. Why is that the case?

NW: There are a lot of mysteries that still exist with these microorganisms. They’re some of the most diverse, living things on our planet, and yet we’ve only known about them fairly recently. Previously, up until the last ten or fifteen years, the only way to understand them was to try to grow them in the laboratory. Now, with the advent of sequencing tools, we can basically take a drop of water or blood and find out all of the genetic information from all of the microorganisms that inhabit that sample. That permits us new tools, but we’re still coming to grips with the amount of data coming out. I think you will see over the next ten years a revolution in the way we can chart out these communities that inhabit us and exist in the environment.

RT: It seems like there would have to be a certain health care system to prevent or stop pandemics. What’s your opinion, for example, on the current health care system in the United States, and do you think there are reforms that would be necessary to prepare for pandemics?

NW: I think our current health care systems are currently ill-equipped to identify these sorts of outbreaks early. It’s amazing that in a system where so much exists electronically, most of us still don’t have electronic medical records. We still don’t have systems that are linked up, so if you see patterns of illness you’d be able to quickly detect them. Even when we do things like surveillance of influenza that’s done by U.S. government organizations, like the Center for Disease Control (CDC), you’re getting a very small drop in the bucket of the number of cases that ended up being reported. I do think that as we become more electronic in terms of how we communicate about our health issues and maintain our records, we’re going to have data that will allow us to see patterns and detect things much earlier than we do now.

RT: What is an exact date of  when you think the apocalypse will be?

NW: (Laughs). I think we’re going to see some really interesting events in the coming years. The prediction [from my book] was that by 2020 we would see either a million deaths by either bioterror or bioerror. I think in the next decade we will see more prominent examples of people using microbes in order to create disruption and havoc purposely through bioterror, and we will also see accidental releases of microbes that will cause deaths and disruption that makes people very aware of these things.

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