Carl Zimmer Uncovers Our ‘Planet of Viruses’

BY Jenny Marder  June 21, 2012 at 3:06 PM EDT

Consider these facts from Carl Zimmer’s book, “A Planet of Viruses”: If you put all the viruses in the ocean on a scale, they would equal the weight of 75 million blue whales. And if you lined up all those viruses end to end, “they would stretch out past the nearest 60 galaxies.”

In 17th century England, Zimmer writes, cures for the rhinovirus, or the common cold, included a blend of gunpowder and eggs and fried cow dung and suet. Today, he says, doctors have little more to offer a person that’s sick with a cold.

Zimmer is a contributing editor at Discover, an author of 12 books on science and a regular contributor to the New York Times. (He also has a tapeworm named after him.) We spoke with him recently about his latest book, in which he uncovers the bizarre world of viruses living in the soil, in caves underground and in our own bodies — while addressing the fundamental questions driving virologists. Why, for example, has it been so hard to find a penicillin for viruses? Which virus will become the next great pandemic? Will scientists ever develop a cure for the common cold? And should they?


Among the many viruses his book addresses is one that has been at the heart of a bitter international dispute among the scientific community: the strain of bird flu known as H5N1. At issue: whether publishing articles by two groups of scientists describing a lab-made form of bird flu would present a biosecurity risk and whether the value of transparency and the importance of the research should outweigh that concern.

On Thursday, the second of the two articles in question, this one from the Netherlands, was released in the online edition of the journal Science – in full. The first article was published in May in the journal Nature.

H5N1 primarily infects birds. But the research team in the Netherlands led by Ron Fouchier and team at Erasmus University Medical Center identified five mutations that allowed the bird flu to jump species, become airborne and easily infect mammals (in this case, ferrets). Of those five mutations, two of them are already commonly found in the H5N1 strain in the wild. All have been detected in viruses found in nature.

The virus can evolve three mutations within a single host, said Derek Smith of the University of Cambridge, lead author of another article on H5N1 published in the same issue of Science. “We now know we’re living on a fault line,” he said. “And we know that it’s an active fault line.”

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that while the committee that studied the issue recommended that the articles be published in their entirety, the discussions “taught us some critical lessons and prompted an examination of the government’s approach to conduct this kind of research.”

And while there are risks to the research, he said, “the benefits outweigh the risks.”

Still unclear is whether other scientists in the field will run into similar disputes when trying to get research published.

“It doesn’t seem to be particularly deadly going from one mammal to the next, but if it were to get out, it might evolve into a deadlier form,” Zimmer says in the video. “Nobody knows. But the fact is, bird flus have become human flus many times in history, and it’s not like if we just hide this one, it’s never going to happen again. It is going to happen. And we could actually learn something about how that jump happens by studying these viruses.”

View more from Zimmer on the bird flu and other viruses in the video above. And don’t miss Hari’s discussion with him from December on his book on science tattoos.