by Janet A. Ginsburg
I have a weakness for natural history museums. Not just the big ones, with their dreamy dioramas of ancient moments-before-battle tableaux of extinct predators and their equally extinct, though more immediately imperiled, prey. In the dimly lit, echo-y halls ruled by dinosaurs, mammoths, sea-monster-size squid and other giants, I can disappear, invisible and speechless in the shadows of creatures implausible. When? Where? How? Really? No!
I love the smaller, out-the-way museums, too, the sleepy ones you often find on college campuses that are themselves relics. At the University of Nebraska, they have a diorama of a farm, complete with a skeletal cat chasing a skeletal mouse, right near skeletal livestock and skeletal poultry, and, of course, our friend, skeletal farmer. It’s Day of the Dead meets Green Acres and it’s completely brilliant.
At Michigan State, there is the “Hall of Diversity,” a celebration of Darwin’s epiphany, filled with the pinned and stuffed of what are now somewhat faded creatures. A butterfly. A squirrel. A mountain lion. An owl. Each stares, glassy-eyed, into the yawning eternity of a dusty, little-visited gallery. And each, I think to myself, is its own “hall of diversity.” Who has taken up residence on that old pelt? What mite-y villages have set up shop amidst the feathers? And who is that staring back at me from the eyelash of a long-dead wolf?
Most of all, I want to know who used to live there. Each of us humans is home to about 1,000 species. Almost half thrive in our guts, helping digest food and generally making life as we like it possible. Wherever I go, I’m a crowd. So are you. So is everything, as big and as little as you can imagine. Grand dramas of birth, death and conquest are going on right under our noses. Right in our noses. And most of the time, we are as blissfully oblivious to the microbes as they are of us.
Germtales is about the microbial Velcro that connects us all, that has made us who and what we are, and gives literal meaning to the biblical poetry of “Dust to Dust.” Life, from its tiniest manifestations, is the gathering of resources to make a greater whole, while Death is about dispersal. The line between the two is deliciously blurry. A bacterium dies, releasing genes quickly snapped up by neighbors and voila: Superbugs. An oxygen-burning bacterium refuses to be digested by another microbe and, lucky us, becomes the powerhouse mitochondria found in every nucleated cell. A dead whale sinks to the bottom of the sea and an eerie ecosystem found nowhere else forms, full of weird worms and other alien creatures.
I am fascinated by this march of life through life, through time. It’s not just the fun of being able to tell intelligent design-types that actually, ahem, we’re all descended from germs. It’s the excitement of being able to understand what’s really going on.
“Disease is an outcome, not a cause,” says Milt Friend, a wildlife biologist in Madison, Wisconsin, who helped found the National Wildlife Health Center. The Center –- a sort of “CDC” for wildlife -- is located in a couple of unremarkable one-story buildings tucked off a frontage road behind a unmarked (as of 9/11) gate, a small prairie restoration, and a parking lot decorated with rows of 1970s-era solar-panels-that-used-to-work. They’ve been tracking animal disease outbreaks there for 30 years. Duck Plague. Bird Flu. Mad Deer. Salmonellosis. Avian Vacuolar Myelinopathy (a kind of Mad Bird disease recently found in eagles). Frogs with far, far too many legs. They’ve seen it all. I first met Milt while working on a story about the West Nile virus and his observation, so simple and devastating, has colored everything I’ve thought about since.
Whether a disease is zoonotic -- meaning it affects multiple species including our own (West Nile, Ebola, SARS, Hanta, Nipah, Lyme Disease, Anthrax, and pretty much anything else you can think of) -- or is strictly an animal disaster, the ramifications have a way of rippling across the Ark. Frogs dying off from an infestation of parasites can’t eat mosquitoes carrying West Nile. Raptors dying off from West Nile can’t eat mice carrying Hanta virus.
Ripples can reach across time, too. Polio survivors are vulnerable to something called Post-Polio Syndrome (PPS), a debilitating condition whose symptoms include muscle weakness, fatigue and a general fogginess. Decades after the virus itself has been vanquished, “hero” neurons –- neurons that had taken over servicing muscles for their dead counterparts -- start to die off at an accelerated rate, triggering the symptoms. In a disturbing twist, West Nile virus attacks the very same areas of the central nervous system as polio, so could very well lead to a similar condition down the line. Only time will tell. The roots of many chronic illnesses -- heart disease, cancers, even some mental illnesses -- have now been linked to infections.
“Disease is an outcome.”
Over the last few years, new strains of morbilliviruses, a group that includes canine distemper and human measles, have emerged as killers of seals and dolphins. Meanwhile trout and salmon are spinning like dervishes from a nightmare called Whirling Disease. Gorillas have TB. Lions have distemper. Yellowstone wolf pups have parvovirus. Honeybees have mites. And, of course, birds have flu.
As messy and disturbing as all this hacking, sneezing, barfing, shedding and spinning may be, this isn’t Nature out of balance. This is Nature playing by the rules. Life flows through life.* It's a matter of opportunity. And we humans have been absolute champs at creating all sorts of spectacular new opportunities.
So far Bird Flu, the latest headline disease, has mostly been a catastrophe for birds. Millions of them have died, both in the wild and on the farm. But the virus’ origins have distinctly human fingerprints. Some say the misuse of poultry vaccines, including watered-down fakes, helped tip the balance toward the emergence of the deadly H5N1 strain. The crowding of chickens in vast factory farms no doubt helped speed its spread. And though wild birds are now being blamed for virus’ global conquest, the smuggling of chickens, ducks and exotic pets played a much more important role, at least early on. (The first virus positive birds in Thailand smuggled eagles that had been confiscated).
Billions of dollars and an army of brilliant minds are now being thrown at the problem, with absolutely no guarantee, and the odds stacked against, preventing a pandemic.
“Disease is an outcome.”
What could have been done differently? What can be learned to help keep the next “emerging disease” from emerging?
Germtales is about understanding how it is we keep ending up in harm's way. But it is also about the bigger picture and sheer marvel of it all. It is a place for all those sparky sidebars that somehow get lost in editing and for ideas just starting to flicker...
* In the Germtales’ realm, viruses qualify as life forms because they have the potential to replicate, unlike, for example, rocks. That they can’t do it on their own is a technicality. Can you replicate on your own?
germtales is now a website. In addition to posts on subjects ranging from The Mystery of the Ancient Horses to Mind Germs, there are book reviews, interviews, news headline links and an extensive, eclectic sources page.
Thanks for your interest!
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