If the current pandemic has taught us anything, it is to bring into stark relief just whose work is essential.
Around the world, people are coming out to yards and balconies to applaud health care workers. People have new appreciation for oft-ignored sanitation workers and grocery store clerks.
While we cheer on those who keep the wheels of society turning, let’s also spare a thought and some words of thanks for another overlooked, essential group: scientists.
Some years ago, while working at the University of Saskatchewan, I wrote a brief profile on a new faculty member, a young researcher named Darryl Falzarano. His chosen subject was an obscure (to me) disease called Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS.
Why, I wondered, was he mucking about with something that, while serious, wasn’t terribly contagious and affected populations on the other side of the world? Plus, the animal reservoir for the MERS virus was the camel – a species not often seen on the Canadian Prairies.
He explained that MERS was a coronavirus, a close relative of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome). SARS I knew: the epidemic had been in the news around the world. People had died; people were afraid.
MERS and SARS are zoonotic diseases, that is, they originated in animals. These diseases constitute the majority of emerging threats to human health. Know more about MERS, Falzarano said, and we know more about zoonotic coronaviruses.
I eventually left the university and lost track of Falzarano until early this March. There was an announcement that VIDO InterVac at the University of Saskatchewan was getting a sudden multi-million-dollar funding infusion from the Canadian government. A new coronavirus had gone pandemic: SARS CoV-2, which causes COVID-19. Once again, people are dying. People are afraid.
VIDO InterVac, one of the top vaccine development organizations in the country, is tasked with developing a vaccine against the threat. Falzarano leads the team.
As any emergency preparedness professional knows, when a crisis hits, there is no time to plan. The plan must be in place, the people trained, the facilities ready.
Most scientists labour in obscurity, making incremental discoveries and publishing them in journals that are largely read only by their peers. But when a crisis comes, when their expertise is needed, they are ready.
What drives scientists to do what they do? Joy of discovery? Insatiable curiousity? Desire to help society? I suspect the reasons are as varied as the people. Of one thing I am certain: scientists don’t get into it for the money. I remember being shocked to learn that a new assistant professor was being paid slightly less than me, a mere research communications officer. This, for someone who had spent at least eight to 10 years completing undergraduate, graduate, and post-doctoral education and training.
Their job was and is much harder than mine. Academic researchers must design and run their research programs, apply for and secure grants, hire and supervise graduate students, write up their research for professional journals, teach classes, and serve on university committees. To get it all done, their work schedule can be brutally long.
And every once in a while, scientists’ expertise becomes critical to the welfare of us all. Suddenly, money is no object. But no amount of funding can conjure a PhD in virology and a decade of hard-won knowledge and expertise out of thin air.
When the call comes, scientists must be ready, and they are. For this, we thank them.
Buying new kicks under this COVID stuff is, well, frustrating.
I’ve been wearing the same set of trail runners for some time now. I love them. They’re comfortable, they’ve got great traction, and they are tough. I’ve beat the hell out of them through Spartan races and a good bit of training for four years, and I am just now, somewhat reluctantly, wanting to buy some new ones.
As you can imagine I want the same make and model.
So, first steps: I go and do a little research online, and there is a new model out. Bonus: there’s an option that’s just a little wider in the toe box, which was my only beef with these shoes.
In the course in my online searching, I woke up the algorithms and am now getting enticing messages from the sporting goods chains with the shoes that are almost what I want (the wider option). Plus, I’d rather buy local, especially during the current trying times.
So I checked the website of my favourite local sporting goods store, since that’s where I bought my current bulletproof speed boots. Alas, their online store is not yet up and running. Worse, it is not apparent how I can contact them about a specific product.
So, from a customer perspective, a few ideas come to mind that might aid our local businesses, particularly in these trying times.
So, what can we take away from all this? Yes, we’re floundering around trying to figure out how to reach our customers under this new paradigm. At the same time, our customers are quite likely floundering around trying to figure out how to find us.
Let’s figure out how to tell them we’re still here, that we value their business, and we’re figuring out how to deliver them the service they’ve come to trust us for. Heck we might even find ways to make that service better.
Unless you’re a cat, bedbug or other unfortunate critter, moving genes is a pretty pleasant affair involving a couple of parents and resulting in offspring. This is called vertical gene transfer. (Ooh, talk science to me baby …)
But what if you want to transfer genes horizontally?
“Going ho” is pretty exciting when an athlete does it in a game of Ultimate. When we’re talking going ho with genes between species that would never otherwise get it on, people freak out.
Enter GMOs, or specifically, transgenic GMOs. These are the ones that involve putting genes from one organism into another, unrelated organism. Like putting strawberry genes into fish – or was it putting fish genes into tomatoes? Or tomato genes into fish? Genetic engineering and PhotoShop often get mixed up on the interwebs…
Some actual examples of GMO crops are corn, canola, and soybeans. These crops have had genes from bacteria added to them. For example, to give crops built-in pest resistance, developers inserted genes from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a soil bacterium that naturally controls insects. Organic farmers apply Bt preparations on their crops and many municipalities use Bt to control pests such as mosquito larvae in standing water. By putting the Bt genes directly into the crops, farmers don’t need to spray their crops as often (sometimes not at all). Also, beneficial and benign insects don’t get hit as collateral damage from spraying. If the bug doesn’t eat the crop, the crop doesn’t harm the bug.
Eww. Bacteria genes in my food? That just ain’t natural.
Well, it turns out, Momma Nature does this sort of thing all the time. One critter that does it a lot is a soil microbe called Agrobacterium tumefaciens. It has basically figured out how to have sex with plants. By “going ho,” it inserts its own genes into the plant’s cells. Why? Well, the genes cause the plants to grow galls. While these lumps aren’t especially great for the plants, they’re great habitat for Agrobacterium.
Researchers got to thinking: what if we swap in some other genes instead, for things that we want–like insect or herbicide resistance? It took a while for them to figure out how to do this, but they got it to work. The first GMO crops made this way came out in the 1990s. Farmers continue to adopt them at record rates because of their great in-field advantages such as lower production costs and ease of use.
Consumers, on the other hand, were not particularly enthusiastic, especially when their doubts were fanned by dire warnings of advocacy groups. Researchers playing god, unnatural selection – that sort of thing. It’s been an extremely successful tack: there’s a multimillion-dollar enterprise devoted to providing a “non-GMO” seal for food producer to assure their products are untainted by genetic engineering. Organic production standards and labels assure consumers likewise.
But there’s a problem with the “unnatural” standard. When researchers got better tools to study genes, they started poking around in a lot of genomes to see what they could find. When they looked at sweet potatoes, lo and behold, there were some Agrobacterium genes in all cultivated varieties they looked at, as well as some wild relatives. The speculation is that Agrobacterium infected an ancestral sweet potato and instead of creating a gall, it caused the plant to grow bigger tubers (there is a set of Agrobacterium genes that is only found in cultivated varieties). It was a “gall gone right” as far as early humans were concerned and they started cultivating these natural GMO sweet potatoes by preference.
It turns out going ho – that is, swapping genes through horizonal transfer – isn’t really that unusual. Once they started looking, researchers found that Agrobacterium really has been getting around. It’s genes have been found in more than 35 species of plants across nearly two dozen genera.
It seems Momma Nature hasn’t been respecting species boundaries. Then again, she didn’t create the boundaries; we did.
People always strive to identify patterns, create categories and assign things to their proper boxes. Nearly 300 years ago, Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist, zoologist and physician came up with the system of “boxes” we use today – kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species. Like mates with like, producing similar offspring. Step too far out of the box and you got things like sterile hybrids, underlining the importance of the rules.
As researchers learned more about genomics and could track on a genetic level what living things were getting up to in private, they found a more complicated picture. Like mates with like, yes, but players such as Agrobacterium and various viruses also get in the game from the sidelines all the time.
Could it be that creating GMOs via horizontal gene transfer – whether it be natural or human-made – isn’t that unusual after all? Maybe “going ho” is just part of the natural order of things.
*Note: “Going ho” only applies to one kind of GMO: transgenics. There are other kinds, created by using different techniques to change an organism’s genome without adding anything. Depending on the definition – and this varies by jurisdiction – GMOs can include products of gene silencing such as the Arctic Apple or more recently CRISPR gene editing and older techniques such as mutagenesis.
There are currently about 10 transgenic GMO food crops available, including papaya, eggplant and one food animal, salmon). Bananas and cowpea are in development and being adopted in some countries.
In the spring of 2009, a five-year-old boy in Mexico got sick: one of the first of thousands to become ill from a new strain of influenza.
His family blamed his illness on the numerous pig farms that surround his village, although testing determined there was no connection. The new contagion, actually a variation on the familiar H1N1 virus, came to be known as the “Mexican swine flu,” or simply “swine flu.”
The disease caused by this new flu bug (formally (H1N1) pdm09) became a pandemic. It killed more than 17,000 people, and continues to kill people every year as part of the seasonal flu threat, but this is true of other flu viruses too.
But the nickname “swine flu” did billions of dollars in economic damage. People stopped buying and eating pork. Export markets dried up as countries free of the virus banned pork imports from countries known to have cases of the disease.
In 1918, just as World War 1 was winding to its bloody end, a new, deadly strain of influenza appeared. While its origins are still uncertain, doctors in Spain – a neutral country – were free to publish what they were seeing. Hence the new disease, which went on to kill an estimated 50 million people in the worst pandemic of the 20th century, became forever known as the Spanish flu. Spain protested that their country was being unfairly stigmatized.
There are echoes of this stigma today as in mid-March the U.S. president dubbed the current COVID-19 pandemic as the “Chinese virus.” Later, at a G7 conference near the end of March, the US secretary of state insisted on calling it the “Wuhan virus” after the Chinese city in which it first appeared. Officials from the other G7 nations refused, so no joint statement on the pandemic was issued.
To be fair (or equally unfair), the Chinese, aided by conspiracy theory groups, have evidently been using social media to spread the story that COVID-19 was brought to Wuhan by U.S. troops stationed there, i.e. “it’s the American virus.”
Names have great power particularly when adopted by those in authority. One possible consequence is that some gun stores in the U.S. have seen a marked uptick in sales of weapons and ammunition to Asian Americans who feel the need to protect themselves and their families.
Some names demonize groups with horns, others sanctify people and places with halos. It’s something the World Health Organization recognized in 2015 with new guidelines in naming new pathogens to avoid any names or geographical locations.
The COVID-19 virus, incidentally, is formally known as SARS-CoV-2. While the name doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, nor does it stigmatize any given group.
Horns and halos bypass people’s logical decision-making; they go straight to the gut for an emotional response. It’s a strategy well-known and well-used in marketing, communications, and yes, propaganda.
In the supermarket, labels such as “organic,” “natural,” and “gluten-free” impart a positive halo to products, while “synthetic,” “GMO,” and “factory farm” evoke horns in the consumer mind. In fact, marketers can buy themselves a halo simply by stating what they are not, for example, “non-GMO.”
Likewise, in energy generation, “renewables” such as wind and solar have been graced with halos, while “nuclear” and more recently “oil” have been burdened with horns.
Facts are often irrelevant when it comes to giving products or messages halos or horns. For example, despite overwhelming evidence of vaccine safety and effectiveness, anti-vaccine groups are able to create enough doubt among parents that childhood diseases such as measles and whooping cough are making a comeback.
Likewise, fear of GMOs and food biotechnology threatens adoption and retention of more productive and environmentally gentle farming techniques. It also keeps these tools from improving the lives of farm families in developing countries. Hot-button issues such as climate change and fluoride in public water supplies suffer from similar communications challenges.
While the world works through this latest pandemic, science communicators can look to other contentious science issues for lessons. How does one put a halo on an issue, and how can that halo become tarnished? Once horns have been put on an issue, can it be redeemed, and if so how?
I'm a science writer based in Saskatoon, Canada. While I write on a wide range of topics, I most often find myself exploring life and environmental sciences as well as the social science aspects of science communications. Examples include agricultural biotechnology, food and water security, and public response to innovations in genetic engineering and energy production.