NatGeo had a pretty sweet program on the other night on viruses! I guess they made it like a couple years ago, but I somehow totally missed it!! If you read ERV, there was probably nothing new there for you, but its neat to *see* the scientists I talk about portrayed as creepy guys talking to themselves in deserted diners, surrounded by 3-inch-tall dancing chimpanzees.


National Geographic Explorer: The Virus Hunters

Few things I want to say–

  • Scientists do not all work in poorly lit rooms surrounded by tubes of bubbling colored liquids. Sometimes there are lasers and radioactive spiders.
  • Bacteria arent infected by hundreds of phages. Its not as impressive an animation, but viruses as a whole go to extreme lengths to ‘piss on the fire hydrant’– they do not want to share their host cell with other viruses.
  • There are thousands and thousands and thousands of ERVs/retroviral elements in your genome. The vast, vast majority of them do nothing. A very small fraction of them are associated with disease, maybe only being disease markers and not actually causing/impacting that disease at all. The fact one ERV protein encoding gene, syncytin, and a handful of LTRs have been domesticated does not negate the fact that virtually all ERV/retroviral elements are crap.
  • Ive mentioned this before in the comments of various posts, but just to put it up front– you can draw blood or cut up the brains of hunters in Africa and find all sorts of unique viruses. But actually being able to 1) get into humans, and then 2) transmit efficiently human–>human, and 3) that infection is actually really bad, is pretty damn rare. Hunters are infected with lots of stuff… but apparently most of it isnt a big deal. Thats one of the many reasons why ‘infecting’ macaques with a ridiculous amount of XMRV… with nothing happening, is not really a big deal. You can infect stuff, so what, dead end. The important information, the important thing scientists like Dr. Nathan Wolfe are looking for, are the ones that go beyond ‘infection’, and are actually being transmitted/causing diseases/etc. The conclusion from the XMRV ‘animal model’ was a big thumbs-down on those.
  • The last part about the virus ‘changing’ the behavior of the rodents is a huge WTF. ‘Viruses’ have nothing to do with that. They used a virus as a gene delivery vector (aka gene therapy), but that wasnt a ‘natural’ effect of a ‘natural’ virus. That was a genetically modified virus designed with a specific effect in mind. There are no viruses out there that increase the number of vasopressin V1a receptors in your brain, just like there are no viruses out there that cure blind kids. Its using the virus as a tool, which is very different from a ‘vole virus’ ‘causing’ the ‘mating difference’, thus evolutionary split, between the voles.. If they explained that, I must have missed it.

Now youll have to excuse me. Theres a dinosaur wandering through my dark lab, and I dont want it to knock over my flasks of bubbling smoking red liquids.


  1. #1 Mu
    April 18, 2011

    Always glorifying the life of the scientist. We all know it’s really
    Hit “start sequencer” icon
    Play Tetris for 12 h
    Move “sequencer result file” to “Analyzer”
    Go home
    Come back, open “Analyzer results file”
    Stare at it for 3 min
    Say “Sh*t”
    Hit “start sequencer” icon

  2. #2 Arkady
    April 18, 2011

    Mu, instead of pressing buttons some of us spend our days moving very small volumes of liquid from one plastic tube into another plastic tube ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Or conversely to phrase some of our work in the weirdest way possible: we keep cancers alive in plastic bottles by feeding them 10% essence of dead baby cow, so we can then electrocute them into taking up foreign viral genetic material which may in some cases make the cells glow fluorescent green (good ol’ jellyfish proteins as genetic markers!)

    On another note, a conference I went to recently had some fermenters on display on the supplier exhibition stands. Someone had the forethought to have the fermenters full of bubbling green liquid ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. #3 Rob Monkey
    April 18, 2011

    A pro tip for the scientists: a little alcohol in your dry ice/water combination will make even more CO2 smoke, as the water doesn’t freeze around the dry ice. This produces a much better Mad Scientist effect, which is essential to getting funding.

    Also, never let non-scientists conduct lab tours. We all managed to hold in the laughter one day as one of the business guys told a sponsor that “this is one of our new HPLCs, we haven’t had a chance to unpack it yet.” It was a marble table for a balance. And the crate it was in wasn’t solid, so you could totally see or touch the marble.

    But hey, what do I know? I just pipet stuff into vials and click start, just like on CSI!

  4. #4 I'm famous!
    April 18, 2011

    So I actually have a cameo in that episode – the woman with gel and the UV box during the vole portion of the episode. I am sure you already could have guessed but that gel is completely unrelated to the piece – I just happened to be running out some genotyping at the time they were filming. Your comments are spot on – I thought their claims were more than a bit overboard. But this might be the closest I get to fame…

  5. #5 ERV
    April 18, 2011

    Mu– Dont be silly. We play Minecraft.

    Arkady– ROFL!! Ive got one cancer that wants 15% essence of dead baby cow or they throw an EPIC bitch fit. But they happily glow (jellyfish green AND sea anemone red!) after I infect them with HIV-1, so I indulge them.

    Rob Monkey– Non-scientist led tours usually avoid our lab, for some reason ๐Ÿ˜€ Me to the last group “Please, dont lick anything.”

    I’m famous!– COOL! And I mean, now youve been on a NatGeo show AND youve ‘been read on a wildly popular science blog’, so now youre SUPER famous hehehehehehe! It is a shame when science gets ‘overstated’– that paper was cool in and of itself. From so many different angles. But when it was featured in this show I was like ‘LOL, wut? Youre cool just being yourself, Research! Dont try to be something youre not!’

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