Mike the Mad Biologist

Most microbiologists, you know, the experts , are not very thrilled with the emphasis being placed on bioterrorism. Inspired by Tara’s post on the Bioshield initiative, I’m reposting this from the old site.

This week, leading microbiologists are sending an open letter to NIH stating that the politically-based emphasis on bioterrorism is starving other areas of research. For some time now, I’ve thought that we’ve been too concerned with bioterrorism, particularly when good ol’ influenza regularly kills 32,000 37,000 people per year (that’s one World Trade Center per month for those of you keeping score at home).

What’s disturbing about this is that most of the ‘bioterrorism’ research won’t do anything to protect us: most of it is just basic research. Unfortunately, this basic research doesn’t use a ‘model organism’ (or organisms related to model organisms). What we’re left with is reinventing the wheel. I’m for increasing funding to study bizarre microbes-if you truly are interested in diversity, microbes are where it’s at. However, if we’re doing basic research, it’s nice to have some hypothesis-driven research. Interesting hypotheses are much easier to generate with model organisms.

In case you’re wondering, the Mad Biologist isn’t off the reservation on this one. Says Stanley Falkow, perhaps the preeminent pathogenesis researcher in this country:

“It will be much more difficult to make the same basic discoveries working on the biothreat agents than with model systems. We can’t find new vaccines and treatments for bioweapons as Congress demands, unless we understand the basic biology behind host-pathogen interactions.”

“It will be very difficult to make the same basic discoveries working on the biothreat agents as it is when working on a model systems that have provided us over the past 50 years with the tools of molecular biology. It is a bad policy that will dampen creative research in the end.”

Says Richard Gourse of the University of Wisconsin-Madison:

“Everyone agrees we are just on the point of making significant breakthroughs in basic research on bacteria, because we can now analyze gene expression patterns and complex biomolecular networks.”

Mother Jones reports:

The most dangerous potential bioweapons — anthrax, the plague and tularemia, to name a few — occur very rarely, if at all, in the developed world. By contrast, other diseases like tuberculosis, antibiotic-resistant pneumonia and salmonella afflict thousands of Americans a year. Scientists have long been predicting new spikes in the rates of such common illnesses. In 2003, the National Academy of Sciences reported “an imminent crisis in the control of infectious diseases” as a result of increasing bacterial resistance to antibiotics. “It just strikes a lot of us as being extremely unwise to spend any appreciable amount of money on bioterrorism when these other areas appear to be under-funded,” says Abigail Salyers, a professor at the University of Illinois-Urbana, who served as president of the American Society for Microbiology during the anthrax attacks in 2001. Those attacks killed five people and injured 22 others.

Let make something clear-these are all really smart people who “know the bug.” It is highly likely that you do not know more than they do in this area; at this level, the game goes the full nine innings. Please Mr. Bush, listen to the experts for once…

Update: He didn’t listen…