Mutating Viruses to Death

Question: What is lethal mutagenesis and how would it work?


Carl Zimmer: So we have this problem with fighting viruses. The problem is that really the only kinds of ways we have to deal with viruses are old school, so vaccines for example are very effective, but the first vaccines were invented in the 1700’s, so we’re talking about technology that is over 200 years-old. Another good way to fight viruses is for having people wash their hands. That’s actually slightly younger in terms of technology. That was in the 1800’s that people figured that out, but still we’re talking about stuff that is over a century old, so scientists are looking for new ways to fight viruses and one possible way that scientists are looking into is to basically turn the viruses own strengths into weaknesses. Now the reason that viruses are so hard to fight, the reason for example we need a flu virus every year is that they evolve very fast. When you get sick with the flu you get infected with flu viruses and they make lots of new flu viruses, but those new viruses are not exact copies of the old ones. They have mutations in them. A lot of those mutations are harmful. They just kill the virus, but some of them are beneficial, so for example they might make it difficult for our immune systems to attack them and so those flu viruses that can evade our immune systems they’re the ones that take off and they dominate the population and then there are new mutants and new ones and new one and now ones and natural selection keeps driving the rapid evolution of flu viruses that we have a hard time grappling with.


Well there is some research that suggests that viruses like the flu are really actually kind of at the razor’s edge when it comes to mutation. They’re mutating so fast that if they mutated much faster they would actually develop a lot of harmful mutations that could slow them down and cripple them and eventually literally drive them extinct. So the thinking is that maybe we could give people drugs that would speed up the mutation of viruses, so you get sick with the flu and your doctors says, “Here, take this drug.” It’s going to speed up the mutation of those flu viruses inside of you. It’s not going to harm you. It’s not going to harm your mutation rate. We’re not going to give you cancer here. We’re going to attack those viruses. And so the viruses start mutating faster and faster. They get more and more harmful mutations and then all the flu viruses in your body, the whole population just goes into the ground. It just becomes extinct. So scientists can make this work in dishes with cells and there is even some suggestion that this may be how some antivirals actually work right now and just people haven’t realized it and so scientists are trying to take that, the next step and so they’re developing this method, which is called lethal mutagenesis to apply it for, for example, HIV, so there are going to be some clinical trials starting to test out some of these drugs to try to drive HIV extinct within people’s own bodies.


Question: Could the speed of human evolution ever be controlled?


Carl Zimmer: I think we have actually already taken control of human evolution to some extent. We’ve actually changed the rate of human evolution just with our activity. You can go back to the invention of agriculture for example, so all of the sudden people who could digest certain kinds of foods because they had certain kinds of genes were going to be at an advantage over people who couldn’t and you can see this in the human genome if you look for example at milk and people who can digest it and people who can’t, so lactose intolerance that a lot of people suffer from you find that in people who descend from ethnic groups who did not traditionally raise cows whereas if you look at some populations in Europe where they raised cows or the Massai in Africa who were cattle herding people you can actually see the mutations that have allowed them to digest milk as adults. I mean everybody can digest milk when they’re little. I mean that’s what makes us mammals, but evolution has led to some populations of people being able to digest milk without much trouble when they’re adults as well. Now that was thousands of years ago, so basically we have been controlling our own evolution without realizing it for thousands of years and I think that we’re only going to continue to alter our own evolution even more in the future because we’re interfering in a good way with nature.


So medicine, for example, you know, medicine allows people to live who would otherwise die, so antibiotics will let people survive infections that they might be otherwise very vulnerable to and even little things might make a big difference, so I wear eyeglasses because my eyes aren’t particularly strong, before there were eyeglasses someone at my age would probably not be good for much. You know I wouldn’t be a very good hunter without these glasses. I’m not a very good hunter with these glasses, but I’d be even worse without them, so that would put a crimp in how many kids I could have, so all of these medical advances have at least in some parts of the world blunted natural selection. Scientists call it relaxing natural selection and so that’s going to continue in the future at least as long as we have medical advances and the quality of life improves around the world, but that being said there are lots of ways that natural selection is just going to keep changing us. So for example, there are still plenty of parts in the world where people rarely if ever see a doctor where there are lots of serious diseases like malaria or HIV and so people are in a sense at the mercy of these pathogens and if they have the genetic wherewithal to be more resistant to these things they’ll be more likely to survive than others and that is natural selection right there. So that’s going to be happening as long as we have this horrendous inequity in the world where you know where billions of people can’t even get clean water, where they don’t get much medical attention. 


On the other hand, even in a place like the United States natural selection is going on right now. So for example, there was a study that scientists did of a town in Massachusetts called Framingham, and it was just a medical study. They wanted to track people’s health over decades and so there were thousands of people in Framingham and these doctors just took all their vital statistics year in, year out and when a new generation was born they started looking at those people as well, so they have this generation by generation record of how many kids people have and their health and so on and they can look to see well what kind of traits are shared by parents and their kids and they can actually see that the new generation of Framingham is a little bit different than the old generation. In other words certain people in Framingham had genetic traits that made them a little bit more likely to have more kids than the others. So for example, the women in Framingham are a little bit shorter on average than their parents were and there are lots of other traits that are becoming a little more common and so you repeat that and repeat that and repeat that in the future and that is natural selection happening as well.

Recorded on January 6, 2010
Interviewed\r\n by Austin Allen

Could deadly viruses’ rapid evolution be turned against them? And could we ever control the pace of our own evolution?

Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.


"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.


There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

Why the U.S. and Belgium are culture buddies

The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.

Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Strange Maps
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Evolution proves to be just about as ingenious as Nikola Tesla

Credit: Gerald Schömbs / Unsplash
Surprising Science
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Mammals dream about the world they are entering even before birth

A study finds that baby mammals dream about the world they are about to experience to prepare their senses.

Michael C. Crair et al, Science, 2021.
Surprising Science
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