April 24, 2015 | By Jake Weber
If aliens were to survey life on Earth, humans would get no more than a footnote, said virologist Nathan Wolfe, Albion College's 2015 Joseph S. Calvaruso Keynote speaker. Plants and animals [would] have three books in the 30-volume encyclopedia; the rest "would be devoted to the microbial world, things you can't even see."
Wolfe's fascinating peek into that world, with its corresponding benefits and catastrophes for humans, capped Albion College's 26th annual Elkin R. Isaac Student Research Symposium on April 23. An internationally respected researcher who invented his field of "viral forecasting," Wolfe captivated the crowd in Goodrich Chapel with his work monitoring pathogen outbreaks in order to prevent pandemic infections.
His presentation followed those from earlier in the day by more than 120 Albion students as well as a number of students from France who have engaged in business-plan projects with members of Albion’s Gerstacker Institute throughout the academic year. The symposium kicked off the night prior, with Samata Singhi, ’05, chief resident of pediatric neurology at Boston Children’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School, discussing paradigm shifts in health and science during the Isaac Alumni Lecture.
Wolfe showed that the range of virology spans from the exterior of the orbiting space shuttle to miles below the earth. Even chloroplasts, which take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen as part of plants’ energy-producing process known as photosynthesis, "are long-lost cousins of cyanobacteria that are locked into plant cells," and not genetically part of plants at all.
Wolfe's focus on harmful viruses such as HIV, Ebola and West Nile and the spread of associated diseases is tied to the globalization of the past 50 years. "In the past, a virus that jumped from an animal to a human would be stuck in one town. Now, a virus that pops up in one place has the ability to get anywhere in the world," he said.
To underscore this point, Wolfe noted that human HIV arose in Africa in the 1930s but didn't become a global phenomenon for another 50 years. More importantly, if his current research was done then, the human cost might have been very different. "Even if we couldn't have identified the virus, we could have known that this was spread mainly through heterosexual intercourse. Just that little piece of information would have fundamentally changed the political nature of AIDS. If we think about prevention, understanding is critical," he said.
A professor of biology at Stanford University, Wolfe is also director of two organizations dedicated to identifying and preventing the rise of animal-to-human disease pandemics. "We've found multiple retroviruses [like HIV] crossing from animals, viruses that are completely novel," he said. "But once we've identified them, we can watch them and see the nature of the disease they may be causing."
While scientists have been aware of the links between viruses, disease outbreaks, geographic locations and human behaviors for some time, Wolfe is among the foremost researchers who have applied and expanded this knowledge on a global scale in the last decade. "There's another way of thinking about how epidemics form," Wolfe said. "We're coming to a situation where by the time these viruses start to move, we're aware of them and can radically mitigate the number of infections they lead to.
"If we take a swab from your nose and sequence every bit of DNA and RNA … we'll find a lot of human genetic information, bacteria and viruses. But what's really amazing is there's a whole area of genetic information that doesn't match anything that's ever been seen before," he said.
"Scientists need new unexplored domains, and I think there's an understandable concern with the younger generation, of where they will explore," Wolfe concluded. "Our capacity to explore the microbial world is infinite … on your body, on this stage, there's a whole range of microorganisms that haven't been explored. They may be things that are critical to the environment, or things that can harm us.
"What's exciting is you have the tools available, you have the questions that are important, and you have the fundamental new space in which to explore," he said. "I wish you the best."