from the world's big
Mutating Viruses to Death
Carl Zimmer is a science writer, lecturer, and frequent guest on such radio programs as Fresh Air and This American Life. His books include "Soul Made Flesh," "Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea," and "Parasite Rex." In addition to writing books, Zimmer contributes articles to The New York Times, as well as magazines including National Geographic, Time, Scientific American, Science, and Popular Science. He also writes an award-winning blog, The Loom. From 1994 to 1998 Zimmer was a senior editor at Discover, where he remains a contributing editor and writes a monthly column about the brain.
Zimmer is a lecturer at Yale University, where he teaches writing about science and the environment. He is also the first Visiting Scholar at the Science, Health, and Environment Reporting Program at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.
Zimmer is a Big Think Delphi Fellow.
Question: What is lethal mutagenesis and how would it work?\r\n
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.\r\n
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.\r\n
Question: Could the speed of human evolution ever be controlled?\r\n
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.\r\n
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.\r\n
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?
Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?
- Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
- It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
- COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?<p>First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.</p> <p>These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/rethinking-higher-education/lessons-disruption" target="_blank">disruption</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/education/learning/education-technology.html" target="_blank">technology management</a>, and so-called "<a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/Excerpt_IHESpecialReport_Growing-Role-of-Mergers-in-Higher-Ed.pdf" target="_blank">mergers and acquisitions</a>" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p> <p>Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/09/apollos-new-owners-seek-fresh-start-beleaguered-company" target="_blank">shareholder</a> interests—are placed above student well-being.</p>
Photo: Getty Images<p>Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person <a href="https://link-springer-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/10.1007/s10639-019-10027-z" target="_blank">instruction</a>.</p><p>Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.</p><p>As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.</p><p>Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p>
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?<p>Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.</p> <p>In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/scott-galloway-predicts-colleges-will-close-due-to-pandemic-2020-5" target="_blank">closures</a> and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.</p> <p>While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail. </p> <p>Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.</p>
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during the Arizona State University graduation ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium May 13, 2009 in Tempe, Arizona. Over 65,000 people attended the graduation.
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images<p>A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.</p><p>Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/harvard-moves-classes-online-advises-students-stay-home-after-spring-break-response-covid-19/" target="_blank">Harvard's</a> eviction of students over the course of less than one week or <a href="https://www.nhregister.com/news/coronavirus/article/Mayor-New-Haven-asks-for-coronavirus-help-Yale-15162606.php" target="_blank">Yale's apparent reluctance</a> to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.</p>
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images<p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the <a href="http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/reports_2019.shtml" target="_blank">old normal</a>. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.</p>
Where can the new normal take us?<p>As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.</p> <p>COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years. </p> <p>ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but <em>driving</em> innovation in higher education. We have adopted a <a href="https://www.asu.edu/about/charter-mission-and-values" target="_blank">charter</a> that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/17/forget-varsity-blues-madness-lets-talk-about-students-who-cant-afford-college/" target="_blank">who we exclude</a>." We adopted an entrepreneurial <a href="https://president.asu.edu/read/higher-logic" target="_blank">operating model</a> that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as <a href="https://www.instride.com/how-it-works/" target="_blank">InStride</a>, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU <a href="https://edplus.asu.edu/" target="_blank">EdPlus</a>, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the <a href="https://theuia.org/" target="_blank">University Innovation Alliance</a>, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale. </p> <p>For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 <a href="https://asunow.asu.edu/20200519-sun-devil-life-summer-enrollment-sets-asu-record" target="_blank">enrollment</a> speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time." </p>
Sallie Krawcheck and Bob Kulhan will be talking money, jobs, and how the pandemic will disproportionally affect women's finances.
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Manly Bands wanted to improve on mens' wedding bands. Mission accomplished.
- Manly Bands was founded in 2016 to provide better options and customer service in men's wedding bands.
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- The company donates a portion of profits to charity every month.
These new status behaviours are what one expert calls 'inconspicuous consumption'.