The interview with science columnist and prominent writer Carl Zimmer was a most rewarding experience. Students at Orozco Academy will be immersed into the fascinating world of viruses when reading his book A Planet of Viruses. I strongly recommend this book to parents, teachers and anyone who is inquisitive about science.
Carl Zimmer Interview
November 22, 2014
Me: Thank you Mr Zimmer for doing this interview with me. For me it means everything.
Zimmer: I’m quite happy to do this type of things . I get a lot of request from students, but I would rather do this sort of thing.
Me:I have a couple of teachers that are hoping to see this. Thank so much for giving me this time. When will you like me to start my questions.
Zimmer: How is your connection?
Me: I can see that the recording has started. How did the idea for this book came about and do you still feel the same?
Zimmer: So the start came about because I was asked by a biologist to get involved in an education project and I would write a series of essays. One essay per virus, so we would just picked up some of the obvious choices, like influenza or HIV or smallpox. And then I started writing these essays just trying to explore some general ideas about viruses and using individual ones and just draw out those lessons. And after I’ve done about a dozen of these, my collaborators said "I think you may have written a book" So we went to the University of Chicago Press and presented them with it and they thought it would be a neat idea to have a relatively short introduction into a whole range of viruses. So that’s how it went from there and I think it work out very well even though I had sort of planned it for a book from the start. And now I’m actually revising it for a second addition to come out next year.
Me: That's wonderful, how relevant to our time. It was prophetic, you were writing it in 2011 and predicting the next plague. That was really fascinating to me and I know what viruses are but for me that was pretty good. So who was the audience that you picture as you were writing this book? Who were you writing this book to?
Zimmer:The project was originally to focus on high school students. But when I’m really writing anything really, I'm trying to aim for a really wide audience, from writing in the New York Times. I want grown-ups to read what I’m writing and I think it would be great for high school students to read to, so I started to work on the book, as opposed to just these essays, for this project. Well I was just thinking for a wide range of people basically, for people that are curious about viruses and not exactly sure what a virus is. You know this is not a textbook for virologists, is not for experts, but is for everybody else.
Me: And it does that, is for 7th graders as well, that is the grade I'm teaching, So I was wondering if you have received attention from individuals or groups who surprised you with an interest in this topic , so far?
Zimmer:Well , yeah, when I will give talks on all sorts of subjects people sometime afterwards will bring the book to me to sign it and they are people who are curious about science in general. An just noticed the book and picked it up to read it and so that’s been nice to see, I enjoyed that.
Me: We did too. I will like to ask you why did you choose to approach this topic with the type of format that you chose? What is the structure of the passages about viruses. I know you have a lot of stories in your essays? I kow I was hooked reading those stories. Was your intention or not?
Zimmer: That’s what writers always try to do. They are trying to get people to read their material and to keep reading. So the way you do that, you try to in the way telling your story in a way that you hook people in and want to keep reading more. And is a little tricky if you are writing about a subject they don’t already know about. So how do you bring them into a subject they don’t know about using all the terminology. So you find interest in the stories and you find strength in the images, you find things that people will start reading and just have a hard time stopping . So in one chapter I started by talking about the beginning of the current ebola outbreak and kind of what we understand now as to how it got started and so that’s how I’m revising the second edition of this particular essay. So once you go through that and you can step back and then you can say well -here is this thing that happened so how did it happened?. So it turns out that ebola is acting a lot like a lot of other viruses. The way that they go from animal into people and then spread out and then eventually stop because we are not their natural host. And so once you sort of pull people in than you can start to talk about some of the bigger lessons.
Me: I understand, what were your experiences in life that impacted your love for science, and to write about science, if any?
Zimmer: I guess when you look around just like at the sky, or at the trees or someone gets sick ,whatever... I mean things are happening around us. And you kind of wonder what is that? What is going on, how does that happened? , And the great thing about science is that it can give some answers. So there was a time when people did not know what viruses were at all and people would just get really sick and a lot of times they died then people near them would get sick to and nobody knew what was happening and so you could ask like, what’s going on? And now we can say well there are all these different viruses. They go from person to person and here is how they make people sick and here how you can fight them so. I always been fascinated with that. I was spending a lot of time when I was young writing about all sorts of stuff, stories and things and then after college I was looking for a job and though it would be good to work in a magazine and I got a job at a science magazine on science news, on new developments in science, and I thought it would be very interesting. Here were the people, the women and men that actually were finding out how the world works.They were discovering things we never knew before and now we know them. it was just wonderful to be able to experience that growth of understanding.
Me: Interesting because that's the way our professor, the one I talked to you about. By the way you are his hero. He talks about how you begin to wonder about things and I actually have the world of wonder in my classroom. So I ask my students to wonder and find the answers to what they wonder, not just as something that you see everyday. And it's been a great thing in my classroom because they want to see what the other students wonder about. So I totally believe in that, I think is were you begin when exploring and learning. So I thank you for that that's going to be great to hear not just for my kids but my professor Punya.
Me: Now I will like to ask some questions about your book. You talk about reassortment both for the Rhinovirus(common cold) and the influenza virus(fever) both evade destruction by this process, they pick up other genes human or animal to become stronger. Since they both use the same mechanism to evolve. Do you think there’s a possibility for these two viruses to combine genes between them and form a stronger virus.?
Zimmer: So is possible, but incredibly unlikely because they are really very different viruses. If you have a cold and something like a flu, you are going to know the difference. Cold you feel kind of gross for two or three days and then you get better and that’s it. Whereas the flu as soon as you get it, you just want to go to bed and you don’t want to get up. And, you might not get up for a week or more, it’s much more intense they affect the body in different ways. That’s because they are very different from each other. They are more different than we are, let’s say from sharks. That’s the kind of difference we are talking about. And so if you were to say to me maybe sharks and people can produce a hybrid, well I doubt it. On the other hand the fact is that distinctly related viruses do sometimes combine genes, but this is something that happens incredibly rarely, maybe in 1,000 of millions of years is that kind of thing. I don’t think that anybody alive today would need to worry about that. And we don’t know what would happen if those genes would combine and produce a new virus. The chances are that even if you could get a virus to work that was part cold and part flu, it just wouldn’t do very well compare to the other viruses. So it wouldn’t do as well as a cold virus and it wouldn't do as well as a flu virus. An so it wouldn't be able to make as many copies as the other ones and so it would not be able to spread and become common. So evolution would be favoring the straight flu virus or the straight cold virus and this hybrid would not be able to take off. That would be my guess.
Me: I understand, well talking about bird viruses. As you know many Chicagoans like myself raised our own chickens in our back yards for the pleasure and enjoyment of raising our own food. What are the chances of us creating a pandemic? There are tons of chickens in Chicago, even with this cold I don't know how is it out there were you live, but we are all trying to become self independent, we don't trust any more the food, the antibiotics in our meats and all of those things. And I'm wondering what is your opinion on that?
Zimmer: Well, I think that people who have a few chickens on their back yard, that’s not where new strains of bird flu are going to take off, I don’t think. What’s of more concern to public health workers are really big chicken farming facilities, either in the United States or south East Asia, where a lot of the new flu strains come from. The reason being that if you get a whole lot of bunch of birds together in one place, we are talking thousands and thousands of them. We have them in a building where viruses can circulate around and not drift away outside. You just have a good opportunity to take a very rare bird flu virus. It might just be infecting one bird and than suddenly is infecting thousands and if some of these birds are then moved to other bird facilities they can infect them as well, and then people will come into contact with this birds. The people who are working in these facilities, or the people who are slaughtering the birds, in the markets. They coming into contact with them and they can get sick with it. I don't know of any case like that, people with a few chickens in the United States dealing with bird flu like that. That's not really where the problem lies.
Me: I see, I understand. I will like to ask you a question about viruses in the oceans and that was new information for me, I really did not know that viruses were that numerous, also that deadly. And how bacteria sort of balances that deadliness in a sense. And not only that, but how viruses affect the planet’s temperature. I'm wondering we as humans, we also produce increasing amounts carbon dioxide levels? Are we in turn affecting this balance of viruses and bacteria in the ocean? And affecting climate change or creating more viruses because of what we do as humans beings, I will like to know what do you think of that?
Zimmer: I don’t think we know enough about viruses in the ocean or in the soil to begin to know the answer to that. There’s so much about viruses that we don’t understand. Viruses we know are the most abundant organism on earth. There are many, many times more viruses than anything else on earth, on the planet. And their masses are just gigantic and they are constantly infecting things. Like with bacteria in the oceans, they are just almost half of all the bacteria in the ocean everyday single day, so that must have a tremendous effect on the chemistry of the ocean and it can have an effect in the planet but we don’t really know exactly what effect is having because it might be doing a whole lot of different things at once. It might be going in a lot of different directions so we have to add up all these different effects to figure out what happens in the end. We just don't know. Now one possibility is that we could be having an effect in climate change in the sense that the arctic is getting very warm, is warming very rapidly and there’s a huge amount of loss of plants called permafrost that you have in the arctic. And we are essentially melting it because the air is getting warmer and warming the permafrost so you are melting the upper layers of the permafrost and it’s becoming warm enough that the bacteria that are frozen in the permafrost is now growing again and they are given off lots of carbon dioxide too which might be accelerating climate change. In a tiny little speck of permafrost there might be millions of viruses they’re all attacking the bacteria and what effect is that having on the climate we don’t know but we are probably bringing many viruses to life again.
Me: That is fascinating , So about the Ebola virus , you describe in your book how it can kill faster than it can find a new host. Based on what we have learned so far, do you believe the ebola has evolved in any way or is the same as it's being ?
Zimmer: It’s the same, it's the same ebola virus since it was first discovered in 1976. It infects people in the same way, it infects people though fluid, that could be either blood, diarrhea, sweat, vomit. It doesn’t spread through the air in tiny little droplets and they float around the way measles does, that’s just the spreading in the same way that it spread before. But obviously this is a very different outbreak then past outbreaks. This one outbreak had killed more people then all the previous ebola outbreaks combined. There are over 5,000 people dead now. That number is just going to keep going up , before it flattens out, so why is it so different? Its different because we change the environment so much were this virus is. So every time that it spills over from animals that seems to be how it spreads. It’s encountering people who are living in a different environment and by that I mean that you don’t have people who are living in a very isolated village and if they get sick they can only infect a few people. These villages are connected by roads more and more, people are much more mobile, they get on a bus and just head for a near by town. And from that town to the capital and so on. So all of a sudden we have ebola show up in big cities which it never did before and it got going and went undetected because these cities have pretty poor medical systems. So basically is like a fire, so if you let’s say that you accidentally start a fire in your house. If you are right there and it's a little fire and you see exactly that is starting, you can immediately put it out with a rag or something and you’re done. But let’s say someone lit a cigarette in an ashtray near some curtains and they kind of walk off and they don’t realize that the curtains caught on fire than it spreads from the curtains, to the furniture ,and so on and the person walks back in, still the same fire, it follows the same rules that the little fire did , but now you can't put it out on your own and that’s what happened. And you can see that's what happened when you look at these countries, so Nigeria is right next were ebola started, they knew as soon as they got the first case because they were very aware ebola was in the neighborhood. First case came in and unfortunately that person infected 20 other people and some of them died but at that point everyone said “ Oh my God we are going to get destroyed by Ebola. They just basically quarantine everybody they supposed to be infected , they talked to everyone they been near them and basically stop the transmission. So that’s it, so there been only 20 cases there, so that’s just what’s happening.
Me: I asked this questions because in a tweet in your web page, I read A little boy infected with ebola ridden in a bus for 700 miles in a bus and did not get infected. That’s why my previous question , Is it keeping it’s host longer alive, that why I was asking?
Zimmer: It doesn’t look like that is it changing, the amount of time people live before they die but there no evidence of that yet. It’s conceivable but there’s no evidence of it.
Me: I have three more questions. One is about classification. You introduced us to a mimi virus and with it’s discovery, what scientists use to classify viruses crumbles around them. Because the genome is so much larger, the size of them just escaped them in front of their eyes and I love how you give us their description. I mean they seem as living and nonliving. They take living characteristics even though they might not be living. You propose that we simple should define them in a continuum. Can you explain what do you mean by this continuum, how do you classify them?
Zimmer- It’s hard to classify them is just getting harder all the time because viruses turn out to be incredibly diverse and there are different kinds of viruses that no one ever thought existed. Just within the past few years we have discovered mimi viruses which are a group of giant viruses, because they are giant. They are 10 or 100 times bigger than any virus found before and they have hundredths even thousandths of genes inside them. Most viruses have two genes inside them, so this is very strange. So there use to be a very obvious way to classify things so there were viruses over here and they a couple of genes and all they did was they inserted their genes in the host cell and that cell made many viruses and that’s it. Whereas, you have life over here with cells, and the cells could grow and then divide, so they included us and plants and fungi and protozoa and bacteria. So people would say that’s is really alive and those viruses aren't because they don't have everything that we have. Where giant viruses are kind of in between because they actually have have a lot of the genes for growing. for doing the things they need to grow and they have a bunch of them. And when they infect a host cell they seem to do be doing some of the work for the cell instead of having the cell do all the work. So it’s hard to say whether you call that alive or not. I don’t know and I don't think it makes sense, I mean it sounds weird to say that life can be in a continuum because we used to be alive or dead, but with viruses is a different world.
Me: Sure is, You talked about how vaccines can be an answered to eradication of viruses. And this may be happening already with few vaccines. You talked about another solution to an opposite problem. which is bacteria and becoming more resistant to antibiotics so you presented us with a solution- viruses killing bacteria, which are the phages. The idea of creating phages that will attack bacteria, we are creating a genetically modify virus, are we potentially creating something that can threaten our existence. Can something turn against us. We are never perfect, something always can go wrong with experiments, I was just wondering.?
Zimmer: I’m not that worry about this kind of research. So these are viruses called phages that infect bacteria and we are not bacteria . Ourselves we are very different from bacterial cells, and these phages have been evolving for millions of years to be very good in infecting and killing bacteria so that makes them very very bad at infecting us. And actually like you right now have trillions maybe a hundred trillions phages inside you right now. They are infecting the bacteria that are living inside you and you are fine. We all have them inside our bodies already and they don’t affect our health . As a matter fact some people may argue that phages may actually be important for our health because they may keep certain species in check and so this idea that people have about threatening infections with phages is really just an extension of what they already doing inside of us. And there may be some research going on to make them do a better job of that targets just exactly the bacteria that they want them to target and not to go after the good germs. I don’t see any reason for worry, thinking about that , turning into some killer virus that destroys us all. I mean, there are serious concerns about other kinds of virus research and the government just recently stopped some research on the flu were scientists were trying to mutate bird flu to see what it takes to become a mammal flu that could spread in humans. They just wanted to understand that transition by doing research and the government decided that’s just too dangerous, because you could accidentally create an new killer strain of flu and it could accidentally get out of the lab. So there are limits to what we should be doing, but I just don’t see a phage therapy being one those things that you worry about too much
Me: The last question is about your future plans. Is there another book, you already mentioned doing the second edition to A Planet of the Viruses. How is that book different from the previous one. Are you adding new chapters, is it updated information. Can you give us a gist of what is to come?
Mr Zimmer: Sure, sure.. In terms of new books that’s what I’m focusing at the moment is the second edition of A Planet of the Viruses and I’m not adding any new chapters, but I am updating all the chapters that are there. And it’s amazing the science of viruses is moving really fast and so just in a couple of years since that book came out we learned a lot of new things and unfortunately we also discovered a lot of new dangers about viruses so we have this huge outbreak of ebola for example. We have other new diseases, One in the middle east called MERS, which is a virus that spreads through the air, is a respiratory infection, it infects your airway. On the other hand we learned to manipulate viruses to do interesting things. There are people for example who are born with genetic disorders, they have a gene that has mutated so is not working correctly, so these are people that have for example hemophilia, because they can make all the protein they need to clog blood, so scientists have been working into putting a working version of that gene into a virus and that infecting people with that virus. And the virus actually delivers that gene to their cells and so now there been experiments for people for few years now, that don't need to take any hemophilia medicine, they don't have to about bleeding to death. They play soccer and do other things just like everyone else does, because viruses basically deliver genes that let them survived. There's so much happening and its really exciting to just have an opportunity to update the book and to give a sense of how much things have change.
Me: Well, we can wait to read it. I just want to say something about Orozco, is in the middle of the Pilsen neighborhood. We are basically an outlier school. We're been trying really hard to do well with the kids that we work with. And you have really empowered them to learn about science when they read your books. I think it will be a lasting relationship and I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Best to you and your family, I can wait to read your book. You have an admirer here.
Zimmer: Well thank you for your interest and for sharing this with your students, I think is great.
Me: Thank you , Mr. Zimmer
“Viruses are unseen but dynamic players in the ecology of the Earth. They move DNA between species, provide new genetic material for evolution and regulate the vast populations of organisms. Every species, from tiny microbes to large mammals, is influenced by the actions of viruses.Viruses extend their impact beyond species to affect climate, soil, the oceans and freshwater.”
A Planet of Viruses Book Review
The book, “ A Planet of Viruses” by Carl Zimmer introduces the reader to twelve viruses; while learning about these viruses, somehow they come to life before your eyes, by personifying them as hijackers of life forms. The reader can not help but to keep on reading. The author divides the book into three sections : Old Companions, Everywhere In All Things and the Viral Future. Within these sections Zimmer introduces each virus in a timeline of a series of events that shaped the understanding of viruses from the beginning of time to our present. In the introduction a set of preconceptions of various viruses are shared with the reader. Preconceptions are erased with stories that are fascinating and easy to understand. Students can learn a lot more than expected from this book, due to prior preconceptions, specially about viruses. The viruses become more fascinating as it becomes evident they are a force to be reckoned with. For example, in the the story of the tobacco virus, Zimmer illustrates how resistant this virus can be to alcohol, heat, and dry conditions after months of exposure. After experiencing these harsh conditions it can come back to life. This truly challenges preconceptions about viruses and calls the reader to imagine the unthinkable. In this way, it accentuates the limitations of science and men to discover the perpetrators of deadly epidemics of our past and present, as it illustrates the struggle of man to learn more about them and his quest to conquer them.
In the first section, Old Companions takes us back in time and serves as an introduction to three familiar and deadly viruses. The common cold, influenza and papilloma virus. They are simple yet complex forms of genetic material made up of 10 genes. It is fascinating that a combination of these can cause illness and outwit the immune system. The immune system does not have a defense mechanism yet against it. If scientists are able to dismantle the core of the virus which looks like a clover leaf, they will be able to eradicate the cold virus. The virus mutates into different strands but the core is the same ( a clover leaf). In this instance, Zimmer provides the reader with a glimpse of hope and possibility. How can scientists unlock this mystery? The idea that antibiotics are losing the battle against bacteria in our time is a reality, so the answer to use phages to kill bacteria is introduced. The reader begins to wonder about what is next. One of the most interesting things about this book is that it leaves the reader at the edge of new discovery. It often poses a hypothesis and for those natural inquisitive people the answer is just a step away.
One of the most surprising mysteries of the ocean is that is plagued with trillions and trillions of viruses. Their genetic make up does not exist on any living or nonliving thing. The mere idea that these viruses are attacking millions of bacteria in the ocean and therefore regulating our climate, can provoke yearning for more knowledge in the minds of any reader.
As a science teacher you often search for literature that will spark a yearning for learning. A planet of the Viruses can allow students to find meaning in context after reading just a few lines. After reading this book the reader gains an understanding of the fascinating world of viruses. In short essays Zimmer paints vivid pictures of the unknown. This is a powerful book that can influence learning in students for years to come. Carl Zimmer, also implants the idea that viruses are not just everywhere but that humans and viruses have commonalities as far back as when life began. The mere idea that viruses have exchange DNA with humans and about 10,000 genes in our genome are that of viruses is just flabbergasting. Viruses are not only the invaders and threat to our existence, but also a part of us. While we are alive, so will viruses prevail.
Carl Zimmer is the author of numerous books such as Microcosm, Parasite Rex and many more. His numerous essays and articles are published in the Scientific American, Discover, Time, Science, Popular Science, and National Geographic magazines. He is a columnist for the New York Times. Carl Zimmer is a Lecturer at Yale University, where he teaches writing about science and the environment.