Sunday, February 13, 2011

Nathan Wolfe’s Jungle Search for Viruses: TED Talk

In his TED Talk, Nathan Wolfe, PhD and professor at Stanford University, shares the wonder and excitement of novel viruses that exploit the junction of human and animal populations. HIV suddenly erupted in the United States in 1984; however, Wolfe argues that it is highly likely that HIV crossed into human populations decades earlier. He claims that it entered human populations following exposure to the retrovirus via bushmeat. Bushmeat hunters, pushed into the jungles by food insecurity, are at extreme risk for exposure to novel viruses because of high levels of blood contact with infected animals. Wolfe’s group, the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative, targets populations on the frontier of virus crossover to study the “pinging” of viruses into human populations. Wolfe notes that a lot of time is spent studying viruses that are already specific to and evolved for human populations. But what if an organization could have caught HIV when it first slipped into human populations? Would the presentation of disease be different if surveillance caught it before it had a chance to erupt? Nathan Wolfe thinks so.

In addition to identifying new viruses (novel retroviruses in Central Africa), collecting tens of thousands of samples, and documenting several viral jumps into human populations, Wolfe’s group educates hunters on basic health information about their own disease risks. Perhaps the most exciting, inspirational, and awe-inspiring aspect of Wolfe’s talk is his articulation of the pathogen world. Although many people despair at the notion that discovery and wonder in the animal kingdom has staled, a vast world of bacteria, viruses, fungi, etc. is thriving before our eyes and presents a fresh frontier for discovery and exploration.

Nathan Wolfe is a professor at Stanford and offers a course listed in HumBio: Viral Lifestyles–Highly Recommended!

-Owen Marecic

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