Scientist in a Strange Land

Last December, Felisa Wolfe-Simon announced the discovery of a microbe that could change the way we understand life in the universe. Soon she found herself plunged into a maelstrom of bitter backlash and intemperate criticism. A dispatch from the frontiers of the new peer review.

Felisa Wolfe-Simon at Mono Lake, California, where collected the GFAJ-1 bacterium. Her paper in the journal Science, which suggested that the microbe could substitue arsenic for phosphorus, generated significant controversy in the scientific community. (Tom Clynes)

Felisa Wolfe-Simon at Mono Lake, California, where collected the GFAJ-1 bacterium. Her paper in the journal Science, which suggested that the microbe could substitue arsenic for phosphorus, generated significant controversy in the scientific community. Click photo for slide show.

 

This should have been Felisa Wolfe-Simon’s moment in the sun. But as the television crew takes positions, the 34-year-old scientist glances at the gray, churned-up lake behind her and gathers her collar around her neck. On cue, she begins her explanation of this lake’s unique chemistry, her voice rising in volume and pitch above the wind.

She’s halfway through the take when the gulls arrive. They swoop and swirl above the shoreline in a swarm, calling in harsh, jeering tones that drown out her carefully chosen words. As the sound technician pulls off her headphones in frustration, the director Oliver Twinch halts the taping and ventures a smile in Wolfe-Simon’s direction. “How about we try that one again?” he says.

“I think we’ll have to move,” Wolfe-Simon says, peering down toward her boots. “I’m sinking in the mud.”

It is this mud, and the peculiar microbes in it, that have stuck Wolfe-Simon in the middle of one of the most extraordinary scientific disputes in recent memory. Last December, at a highly publicized NASA press briefing, Wolfe-Simon announced that her research team had isolated bacteria from Mono Lake, on the edge of California’s Eastern Sierra mountain range, that could subsist on arsenic in place of phosphorus, one of the elements considered essential for all life.

The research, financed mostly by NASA and published initially in the online edition of Science, jolted the scientific community. If confirmed, scientists said, the discovery would mean that this high mountain lake hosts a form of life distinct from all others known on Earth. It would open up the possibility of a shadow biosphere, composed of organisms that can survive using means that long-accepted rules of biochemistry cannot explain. And it would give Mono Lake, rather than Mars or one of Jupiter’s moons, the distinction of being the first place in our solar system where “alien” life was discovered.

Read the rest of the story at Popular Science

The Virus Hunter

HIV, Ebola and the vast majority of other killer diseases have passed from animals to humans. Nathan Wolfe is searching for the next AIDS before it makes the leap–and is revolutionizing the way the world tries to control diseases in the process.

Virus hunter Nathan Wolfe, director of the Global Virus Forecasting Initiative (GVFI), and GVFI ecology coordinator Matthew LeBreton discuss field work with villagers in Cameroon. Wolfe is a virologist and epidemiologist who supervises research into the ecology of wildlife and other animal diseases. (Cameroon village names: Ngoila, Messok, Mesock, Zoulabot) (Tom Clynes)

Virus hunter Nathan Wolfe, director of the Global Virus Forecasting Initiative (GVFI), and GVFI ecology coordinator Matthew LeBreton discuss field work in Cameroon. Click photo above for slide show.

It’s nearly midday when Brice Bidja steps out of the tangled forest surrounding the African village of Messok in southeastern Cameroon, gripping a Russian 12-gauge shotgun in one hand and the limp body of a mustached monkey in the other. Bidja usually returns alone after his hunts, but on this morning a handful of foreigners tags along with him as he approaches his mud-brick hut. Among the researchers, logisticians, and documentarians is American virologist Nathan Wolfe.

Wolfe stands just outside as the others duck through the low doorway; inside, the glare of the tropical sun gives way to an easy reddish glow of firelight on the faces of Bidja’s wife Sandrine and their two small children. Bidja sets the monkey down on a palm frond and pulls out a sheet of filter paper provided by Wolfe’s organization, the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative (GVFI). Sandrine crouches and picks up a machete, then slices off one of the animal’s front legs and holds it over the paper, aiming the dripping blood at five printed circles. Once the targets are saturated, the hunter tucks the blood sample into a ziplock bag filled with silica gel packets and hands the bag to one of Wolfe’s colleagues. The group will run tests later to see if the animal that Bidja and his family would soon devour is infected with a particularly nasty virus that could jump to humans, ultimately becoming the next deadly pandemic.

Sandrine thrusts the monkey’s leg into the flames, perfuming the hut with burnt hair and skin. She sets it aside and continues the butchery as the foreigners come in closer with their cameras and notepads, documenting the blade’s passage through legs and tail and neck. At the doorway, Bidja chats with Wolfe, their simple French mixing with the sounds of splitting bones and separating tendons. Sandrine begins to open the monkey’s rib cage with sharp hacks of her machete, each of which unleashes a fine spray of blood. It’s too much for one of the visitors, who darts outside and makes a panicked reach into her backpack, pulling out a bottle of antibiotic gel.

“Oh, good, you brought hand sanitizer,” Wolfe says, exaggerating a stifled smirk. “That’ll protect you, don’t worry.”

Meanwhile, Sandrine uses a smaller knife to finish readying every part of the monkey, except the entrails, for her family’s use. Seeing the children growing restless, she reaches into the animal’s chest cavity and cuts out its heart and liver. She tosses the floppy organs to the kids, who roll them in their hands like Silly Putty, showing them proudly to Wolfe.

Solidly built, with curly hair and plump, whiskered cheeks, Wolfe, 38, is at the muddy-boots vanguard of an ambitious movement that seeks to shift the way the world approaches disease control, from containing outbreaks to launching preemptive strikes against emerging viruses. “If we look at AIDS or smallpox or Ebola, or any of the really bad shit that has emerged over the past century,” says Wolfe, “the vast majority of these pathogens has passed from animals to us. What we’re trying to do now is get upstream, way upstream, and catch the next HIV before it can explode into a killer pandemic.”

To do that, Wolfe has spent much of the past decade running alongside hunters like Bidja, collecting blood from them and their prey. That he chose the wilderness of southeastern Cameroon — one of the most challenging environments on Earth — is no accident. It was here, scientists now believe, that a chimp virus that would mutate into HIV made its first foray into the blood of a hunter like Brice Bidja. From its unwitting first host it would fan out around the world with a deadly, methodical efficiency, infecting more than 60 million people.

Now Wolfe is taking his “viral surveillance” project on the road, fueled by a burst of grants that will allow him to set up shop in other tropical hot spots that have histories of spawning deadly viruses, including cholera, bird flu, and SARS. Eventually he aims to create a worldwide infrastructure to supply researchers with a steady stream of blood from “sentinel populations,” such as bush-meat hunters in Africa, poultry farmers in southeast Asia, or vendors in the Chinese “wet markets” where live animals are bought and sold for food.

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