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TWiV 134 Letters

Kristopher writes:

Dear TWIV,

As a developmental biologist and post-doc, I greatly enjoy your show which gives me both information and distraction from pipetting small volumes from one tube to another in the lab. Recently, my lab enjoyment was cut short by a week by a long bout of viral gastroenteritis with a trip to the hospital - an annual to bi-annual experience that I thought I would miss this year (D'oh). I think Vincent mentioned that there was going to an episode on the norovirus - I hope it is still on the to do list. I would like to learn more about "name of my pain," the description stomach flu doesn't do it justice... Seriously though, I always dread this disease and sure others do - although it is not responsible for large numbers of deaths, it causes a lot of suffering and a large percentage of the population always comes down with it.

Keep up the great work,


University of Michigan

Alexander writes:

Dear Hosts,

I have been listening to your show and truly treasure every episode; thank you. I've learned more from your show, and the resulting wikipedia safaris that it has inspired, than I have in college science classes.

Forgive the following sycophantic sentence, but it seems to me that people in your field are doing some of the best work to help our fellow man. With that in mind, a goal of mine is to assist in whatever small way I can while at the same time carving out a modest career; you see, I am 29 years old and have never completed college (I pay my own way, but this means I have been paying for a long time). My question is thus: is it too late to realistically pursue this path and be an asset to the field, or are my energies better directed elsewhere? College must be completed either way if I am ever to climb the ladder, so why not direct my efforts and funds towards something that has the possibility of contributing towards real good in this world?

Because of the recovering economy (hopefully this will continue!), I have found myself in a financial position whereupon I can finally seriously finish college within less than 2 years. I do have an interest in microbiology (obviously, since I listen to Twiv, twip, and twim), but I fear that this is a field one must get into right out of high school, not at 29; what are your thoughts on this? I gave up on Med School long ago due to financial obligation to my family, my ever-increasing age, and my own lack of funds, but if I could be an asset to ongoing research even at my age that might be even better. I respect your opinions, and would like to hear them if you would be so kind as give me your time.

As I'm sure time for letters on your podcast is precious and there are other, more worthy, questions to be showcased (as evidenced by the caliber of previous letters read), if you could at least give me a reply via email with your council, I would greatly appreciate it. I have been told that I am better off doing something else, but this would be the first time I consulted with someone in the actual field.

As an aside, when is Twip going to go weekly? It doesn't seem like there is much of a danger of running out of parasites to enlighten us about; is it mostly an issue of time? That would be completely understandable, but alas.

I greatly appreciate you all for providing these podcasts for us; it helps get a laborer though his day.

Thank you for your time,


Phoenix, AZ

Geoffrey writes:


In regards to your question of whether or not bacteriophages infect humans in episode 112. I may be a little late but here is my view: it depends on your definition of human as an organism.

As a person learning about permaculture and trying to start a permaculture-based farm, I have to constantly think about the features of my land from geology to microbes to plants to insects to livestock to how to construct and power my buildings and tools. I may not be very good at it yet but I try to think both on the organismal and meta-organismal level knowing that many of my organisms will not function well (or at all) if they don’t have the support of the meta-organism. Examples of this are nitrogen-fixing plants, parasite loads in livestock (an humans), multiple fish species in ponds to make proper use of food resources, trees and shrubs to shade other plants that don’t like much direct sun, etc.

Thus, my answer is that bacteriophage probably don’t infect the human organism but they do infect the human meta-organism (which comprises the human and a plethora of dynamic micro-organisms). Here, however, is where it gets tricky. If the human meta-organism picks up a strain of bacteriophage that affects one of the semi-symbiotic bacteria inhabiting the human (such as lacto-bacilli in the human gut), then a support symbiote could be wiped out temporarily. This could, in turn, produce a down-turn in human biological functioning which I would interpret as “being sick”. Thus a bacteriophage infection could make a human sick without actually infecting the host human organism. I know that I suffer from periodic changes in gastro-intestinal functioning that do not seem to correlate well with my food intake. Could these be due to changes in GI-tract bacteriomes? I certainly feel sick when it happens. As studies of the human bacteriome and virome proceed, it will be interesting to see how our understanding of these interactions develop.

I would also add that viruses, being the tricky little things that they are, have a lot of resources of which we are still unaware. I would not be at all surprised to find out that, in the vast operations of the human meta-organism, there aren’t some bacteriophages that either reside in or are stored by human and bacterial cells as another layer of bacterial defense. Certainly, we have seen that some hymenoptera (especially parasitic wasps) have incorporated viruses into their gene structure which they then replicate and incorporate into their egg coverings. These viruses, then, “hide” the eggs from the host caterpillar’s immune system. There are other instances where bacteria and algae are accumulated (sometimes even maternally transmitted) and utilized by host organisms in a symbiotic relationship. I see no reason to assume that such a situation hasn’t arisen where some cells and micro-organisms “host”specific viruses and control their replication and dispersion. As such, what is the term for such a residence and even possible replication? Infection isn’t necessarily the right word or is it? How would such a situation be differentiated from, for instance, quiescent HIV infection?

Come to think of it, viral symbiosis, its implications, and biological applications would make a great episode or three for TWIV.

Keep up the good work.



Chris writes:

Hi TWiV Team:

I'm a medical and graduate student interest in virology and love the podcast.

The Editor-in-Chief of Virology Journal has just retracted an article and apologized effusively on the journal's home page. I wondered what sort of paper would warrant that sort of mea culpa. Then, I read it. Here's the link to the .PDF


...and the apology: http://www.virologyj.com/content/7/1/169/comments#424680

Best line in the article: "One final consideration that one might have is whether the illness was inflicted by a demon or devil."




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