Carl Zimmer – Viruses and Other Little Things

February 04, 2013

This year’s flu season has been dubbed the worst in recent history, despite the fact that the flu vaccine is fairly effective and readily available. But of course, not everyone experiencing flu-like symptoms actually has the flu—with so many cold viruses and bacterial infections being passed around, it seems that everyone has been sick this January. Long nights, low humidity, holiday parties all combine to create the perfect breeding ground for the tiny organisms that make us miserable.

Singers like myself are particularly sensitive to illnesses that make it impossible for us to do our jobs and so, as I traveled to Raleigh last week for a conference of science writers, journalists, bloggers and broadcasters, I couldn’t help but think about bugs and viruses in between hand washings. It’s no surprise then, that when I had the opportunity to chat with one of the most prolific and popular science writers in the world—Carl Zimmer—we climbed through the looking glass and into the microscopic realm of germs.

Carl Zimmer is an award-winning science writer whose work is often published in the New York Times, National Geographic, Time, Scientific American, and other outlets.

His books include a history of neuroscience called Soul Made Flesh, Parasite Rex, and Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.

He is also a co-author of 3 critically-acclaimed textbooks on evolution and his popular blog The Loom is now hosted by National Geographic. A popular public speaker and a frequent guest on Radiolab and This American Life, Zimmer is also the only science writer after whom a species of tapeworm has been named.

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This is Point of Inquiry for Monday, February 4th, 2013. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m Indre Viskontas Point of Inquiry is a radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. 

And at the grassroots, this year’s flu season has been dubbed the worst in recent history, despite the fact that the flu vaccine is fairly effective and readily available. But of course, not everyone experiencing flu like symptoms actually has the flu. With so many cold viruses and bacterial infections being passed around, it seems that everyone has been sick this past January. Long nights, low humidity. Holiday parties all combined to create the perfect breeding ground for the tiny organisms that make us miserable. Singers like myself are particularly sensitive to illnesses that make it impossible for us to do our jobs. And so as I traveled to Raleigh, North Carolina, last week for a conference of science writers, journalists, bloggers and broadcasters, I couldn’t help but think about bugs and viruses. In between handwash. It’s no surprise, then, that when I had the opportunity to chat with one of the most prolific and popular science writers in the world, Carl Zimmer, we climbed through the looking glass and into the microscopic realm of germs. Carl Zimmer is an award winning science writer whose work is often published in The New York Times, National Geographic Time, Scientific American and other outlets. His books include a history of neuroscience called Soul Made Flesh, Parasite Wrex and Science Ink Tattoos of the Science Obsessed. He is also a coauthor of three critically acclaimed textbooks on evolution and his popular blog, The Loom is now hosted by National Geographic. A popular public speaker and a frequent guest on Radiolab and This American Life. Zimmer is also the only science writer after whom a species of tapeworm has been named. 

We’re going to take a short break and then we’ll be back with Carl Zimmer. 

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Welcome to Point of Inquiry, Carl Zimmer. Hi, thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure to have you on our show. You are an extremely prolific science journalist. And so I wanted to start out by asking you, how do you define your beat and how did you come to that particular topic as your beat? 

I say that my beat is life just in the sense that I’m interested in living things either in the past or the present or even the future. And it took a while for me to sort this out. 

When I started as a new reporter at Discover magazine, we were assigned all sorts of different things. You didn’t get to really be picky about it. So I wrote about technology and physics and lots of other subjects and the subjects that I kept coming back to and really pushed to propose to write were things like paleontology or genetics or ecology. And after a while, I realized that now I have something to do with what it means to be alive. And so, you know, I guess the you know, the big overarching explanation for all of that is evolution. And so sometimes I say I write about evolution, but that’s sort of a synonym for just writing about life. 

So it could be, you know, biotechnology and what that portends for the future, or it could be trying to figure out the origin of life on Earth and maybe the origin of life somewhere else. And I kind of like that because there’s there’s a wide range of things to talk about. But there are all these connections between them. So it’s not a random assortment. 

You’ve also written quite a bit about some of the smallest living things, which, of course, are viruses. And I would say that some one might argue that actually a virus is not a living thing depending on how you define life. So what are your thoughts on the matter? 

It’s an interesting question. And what’s really interesting to me is that scientists themselves are still arguing about this. The reason they’re arguing about it is because we really don’t have a definition of life. I mean, no, no. If you’re going to say whether viruses are alive or not, you first need to know what you mean by the word alive. And ultimately, we don’t in any deep way. And so for the time being, I just kind of look for a compromise. I think of viruses as sort of alive. They can’t do all the things that an animal or a plant or even bacteria can do. You know, they don’t eat and then grow and divide and so on. But on the other hand, people have been finding viruses that actually do some of these things that no one had thought of before. So there are these things called giant viruses, which are 100 times bigger than a regular virus. And when they invade a host cell. 

They actually do kind of suck in molecules from the cell. And then out of the virus come new viruses. It’s still a virus. It’s just like other viruses, it has virus type genes and so on. 

But whatever it’s doing is and is. It’s more like what bacteria might do. So I think it’s a good question to ask, but I don’t think we know enough yet to really answer it. And just these discoveries that people are making in just the past few years just show us that we really don’t know viruses very well at all yet. 

So it seems like that’s sort of the answer that we also get from a lot of neuroscientists and philosophers about what is consciousness and can that a machine be conscious? We can’t define it. It’s hard to decide whether something fits into a category. 

And recently, I feel that there’s been a shift even in the way that we think about the viruses that are around us all the time, from just being individualize to now being part of what people call the microbiome. The term it’s been popular in the last decade. So has this notion of microbiome shifted your thinking about writing on particular viruses, or do you have to really consider the virus within its environment? 

I think it’s really interesting that scientists are looking at viruses not just as the thing that will make you very sick and might kill you, that they’re starting to recognize that we have a relationship with viruses that is sometimes beneficial. And, you know, we have trillions of viruses in our body just when we’re perfectly healthy. Most of them are actually infecting the bacteria that live inside of us. And so they’re going into these bacteria and in many cases, killing them. 

And so it’s an ecosystem in which the viruses are kind of like the lions. You know, they’re the predators that are killing their prey. And so they are influencing the population levels of all these thousands of different species of microbes in our bodies. And so, you know, it’s possible that by manipulating these viruses, you might be able to treat particular illnesses that are caused by bacteria. But again, what makes it most interesting is that we’re right at the beginning of of understanding this. So the most important basic research on the viruses in our bodies is coming out right now. So we’re we’re at the start of a really interesting stage in biology. And as a journalist, what I love is that I get to be writing about these things that are really going to kind of set the tone for decades or centuries to come. 

And you you mentioned that one of your main interests is evolution. Of course, you’ve written a couple of books on the topic. And in a lot of ways, viruses are a wonderful test model for evolution because we can watch the way that they evolve. So can you tell us about what are some of the significant things that we’ve learned about evolution from studying viruses? 

There are a couple of things that come to mind in terms of what we’ve learned. One is that viruses show us just how fast evolution can happen when viruses invade our bodies and make a sick. They’re churning out billions upon billions of new viruses like every day. And the viruses are very sloppy in replicate themselves. So, you know, if you get the flu and a flu virus invades a cell in your throat, pretty soon that cell is going to explode with viruses, new viruses coming out. Each one of them probably has a mutation, at least one. So there are all these variations. And so there’s this constant experimentation going on because some of those viruses are going to be crippled by their mutation and they’re basically dead. A few, though, will actually be able to replicate better than their ancestors and they might, for example, be able to escape your immune system. And this happens during the course of your illness. And so scientists can study how viruses mutate, you know, going into someone and then coming back out. You know, they’re different viruses that you then sneeze on someone. I mean, they’re different because they’ve evolved. So that’s one important thing. The other important thing is that when viruses are moving between hosts every now and then, they do something really remarkable, which is that they take with them genes from one host to another host, and they can actually insert those genes into a new host. So what’s happening is that if you think of evolution as a tree, the way Darwin described it, where you. Have you know, over generations you have branches coming out? As parents produce offspring and those genes get carried down through time. Well, then you got things like viruses shooting across those branches and, you know, literally going from one species to another in some cases and moving genes from one branch to another. So and this is not like a minor thing. I mean, if you look at, say, for example, E. coli and you look really hard at its genome, a lot of it is there because of some virus a million or a billion years ago showing up in infecting the ancestor of that bacteria and inserting some genes there. So our genomes are really more like Mosaic’s that are assembled from pieces. And a lot of the work of bringing those pieces together has been done by viruses. So that, again, is something that I think that biologists are only really starting to grapple with. 

Yeah, I’ve noticed that our our view of genetics has started to shift from wheezed to think, well, you know, someday our entire genome is going to be sequenced for each person. And then you’ll just know your genetic code. And in fact, my husband has done this 23 and me thing, but very quickly realized, hey, you know, because of epigenetics, because of the environment, those genes are acting and because of time, that genome essentially is going to be different. 

It’s going to change possibly in pretty significant ways. So how do you see now? And in terms of this influx of information about our own genomes, are we. Is it gonna be something that we’re gonna have to do a checkup every year? Let’s say, you know, 50 years down the line if we are sequencing our own genome? Or is it just these minor shifts that are going to be less informative? How are we gonna approach our own genetic material down the line? 

Certainly right now I’d say that these things like 23 me, their value is educational. You know that you get information back about your genome, but it’s not like everything’s being revealed to you about, you know what, you’re going to die someday. And all the raster, you know, there were it’s not going to tell you, like, what language you should study because you have a good brain gene for Portuguese or something that’s not in there. What it does is it gives you a glimpse at your DNA and a sense of how DNA works. And. And, you know, and it does point you to some variants that have been linked to some diseases. But again, it’s really early days. And, you know, it’s just so, you know, if you have most of the time if you have, you know, some variant of a gene that’s been associated with, let’s say, heart disease, that variant probably may might raise your risk of, say, having a heart attack, let’s say, by, you know, half a percent or something like that. It’s almost meaningless. And really, if you know that your family has a history of heart disease, you know, already a lot more than your genome is going to tell you, in a sense, what you’re doing is you’re doing a genome scan by talking to your parents about, you know, what did grandpa die of? You’re getting information about your own genes that way. And it’s just as valuable or more valuable now for a lot of things. On the other hand, there are lots of rare diseases where maybe a few hundred or few thousand people in the United States share some disease that most people haven’t heard of. And now that genomes can be scanned completely for a few thousand dollars, might get down to a few hundred soon. Now, if a child is born and has some disease that nobody can figure out, it really is an option to sequence their genome and discover a single mutation that might disable an enzyme which is essential, and then try to figure out what to do next and say like, OK, so this is we’ve we’ve pinpointed this particular disease to this one mutation that does happen sometimes with rare diseases. So so then you can start thinking about things like gene therapy for that kind of disorder. So again, with the genome, it’s still early on. But I think I’d say maybe in 20 years genomes will just be a regular part of medicine. And yeah, you maybe you will have your genome checked every every year. Why not? I mean, if it ends up costing like 20 bucks and, you know, if you could look at, you know, as you mentioned, the epigenetics, you know, the the way that molecules stick onto the DNA and control how the DNA is making proteins. Sure. If we can, we can track changes there. I mean, the. It could potentially be a way to, you know, forecasts, cancer or other things. I mean, so I see that definitely happening. Just not today. 

And with gene therapy, you’ve touched on something that I think viruses can be very good for. Right. As as vehicles to administer a therapy in ways that we can’t and any any other way. So can you talk about some of the exciting ways in which viruses have been used to do good things in our bodies by scientists? 

I’d say the gene therapy right now is the most exciting and really most persuasive examples of using viruses, because after decades of experimentation, gene therapy is finally working. And so what happens is that scientists will take a working version of a gene and load it essentially into a virus and then infect someone with that virus. 

So one of the things that’s been going on recently is that children are sometimes born. 

With a genetic mutation that causes their eyes to quickly to digest their retinas, to regenerate, and they are blind. So what scientists been doing is essentially just taking these viruses and sticking putting them in in a syringe and sticking that needle into these kids eyes, injecting viruses in there. The viruses infect these cells in the retina. They install this gene. The gene starts making a protein that then, sir, cleans up the retina. You pulled out all the waste and lets the retina and regrow. And then these kids are starting to regain some of their eyesight. I mean, it’s it’s really happening now. And there there’s going to be gene therapy approved in Europe. Now for hemophilia. So it’s amazing. And if viruses are really what’s making it happen. There are other ideas that people have that, you know, in the future will I could potentially be really interesting. So, for example, we have this huge problem with antibiotic resistance. 

So bacteria that make us sick, they have evolved all these ways of fighting off our antibiotics. Or what used to be a magic bullet is useless. So the fact is that all the virus, all the bacteria that make us sick, they all have their virus enemies. You know, a particular species of virus that pretty much only goes after that species of bacteria. So you can you can grow these viruses in a lab. And so it could be possible to basically create a virus cocktail. So if someone say it’s got burned on their arm and they’ve developed infection. Well, you take a culture, figure out what bacteria there. You whip up a cocktail of viruses and put it on a bandage and just slap it on the wound. And the virus is go in to the wound and seek out those bacteria and kill them all. 

And then you could you could cure the patient. This is called phage therapy because viruses that infect bacteria are called phages. 

And the idea has been around for about a century now and people have tried off and on to make this a reality. It’s never really quite taken for a lot of different reasons. But I think as antibiotic resistance continues to get worse, I think people are going to really start to take phage therapy seriously. 

So antibiotic resistance is something that, of course, a lot of us are very much worried about, especially as we spend more time in hospitals where these things become resistant. So I’d like to actually you’ve you’ve recently covered, at least on your blog, The Loom, the case in which there was a resistance. And I thought it was, I believe is a Wired article. Yeah, I called Mutant’s, although I read it on your blog. But anyway, I was really intrigued by the way in which you described how the clinicians there figured out or the scientists, I should say, figured out how, you know, the mutations which were happening. And you just describe a little bit the process they went through in order to understand the mystery of this resistance. 

Sure. So the one of the reasons that I wanted to write this article is that we’re facing a serious crisis now that doctors have been trying to get us to be aware of, which is that hospitals are becoming breeding grounds for highly resistant bacteria. And the patients in these hospitals who are sick and have lowered immune systems are their most vulnerable victims. 

And so as a result, around 90 or 100 thousand people die of hospital acquired infections in the United States every year. I mean, that’s tremendous. And, you know, you’d think that that would be completely avoidable. But one of the problems is that once bacteria get into a hospital, it’s very hard to figure out where they are and how they’re getting from person to person just because somebody’s sick and then somebody else gets sick a few days later that you don’t necessarily know that the bacteria went from patient one to patient to it. There’s a lot of could have happened in between. Or maybe they both got it from somebody that you haven’t found yet. And so there’s a new tool that these epidemiologists can use, which is the ability to sequence the entire genome of some microbe that is killing patients. This is very early days. And so one of the first places to. Try to use this was the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center, which is a hospital for people who are in clinical trials. And so these are people who are got sick, very serious illnesses, and they are in a trial for some new kind of drug. Often they’re there in that trial because everything else is failing. So they’re in bad shape. And there was this outbreak of a really nasty bacteria called KPC, and it was just killing people, you know, and just week after week, another person was dying of this and they just they were trying to do everything they could to stop it, but they weren’t stopping it. So National Institute of Health has a huge genome sequencing facility and experts on it. And so they kind of joined in and said, like, OK, let’s let’s start sequencing the entire genome from bacteria, from every single patient. And they were able to see tiny little mutations popping up in the bacteria going from as they went from one patient to the next to you could use the mutations to actually track the spread. You could say outwell patient five has a mutation that’s found in patient three and also has this other mutation found in patient four. And you can start to say like, well, the order in which these mutations arose tells you about how went from one patient to the next to the next. And you start drawing a tree and say, oh, my goodness, you know, this bacteria is taking these roots among these patients. That’s just crazy. And clearly, we’re missing a huge amount in terms of infection control. So it changed the way that they were trying to control this outbreak. You know, they started ripping out sinks and changing plumbing. They started isolating people for much longer than they would have otherwise because they just realized what they were doing before wasn’t good enough. So, you know, this is one of the few bright spots I see in the crisis with antibiotic resistance. I mean, at least we can track these things better. The problem is that, you know, if you get KPC, for example, there’s only one combination of antibiotics. You have to take them together. That really seems to work. And these are drugs that actually were abandoned in the 1970s because they’re so toxic, like they can cause kidney damage. These are really awful drugs that you don’t want to take. But if your choice is between kidney damage and being on dialysis versus being dead, you know, I guess you might be able to do that. But the sad thing is that during these outbreaks, the bacteria can evolve resistance to those drugs, too. And this happened at the clinical center. They started to see this bacteria becoming resistant to everything. So we’ve gone to the point now where, like bacteria are resistant in some cases to everything we have. So it’s a real crisis. 

In fact, I think there are some cases in which people are holding back treatments for particular bacterial infections so that they don’t develop the resistance because say you only have one more shot at this particular disease and so you save it for either the really weak or some big outbreak. It’s an interesting ethical question. Then who gets treated? What is your thinking on that, on how we should approach this question of if there really is a limited amount of treatment available for some of these infections? 

And the more people that get treated, the harder it is to treat them. How do we decide who gets treatment? 

It’s it’s a horrible kind of decision you have to make. And, you know, what I would prefer is not to have to make that decision. The reason we have to make that decision is partly because it’s a terrible business model in our sort of current health care system. If you’re a drug company, used to be the antibiotics were a great way to make money. 

But now a lot of drug companies just gotten out of the business. They just don’t want to sink all that money into developing a new drug. I mean, it can cost over a billion dollars to develop a new drug and get it through trials. The problem is that great. You spent all that money in years and years and years developing a new kind of antibiotic. The first thing the doctors are going to do is say, great, we’re going to just put this on the shelf, because this will be, you know, the the drug will save to to use when everything else fails. It’s not something that people will use very much. They’ll say like, thank you. Thank you. You know, well, we’ll we’ll buy a little this drug and we’ll put it in the medicine cabinet and we won’t use it. It’s a horrible economic model. So there are the infectious disease society has been proposing some ways of sort of offering incentives to drug companies or to encourage basic research and to just sort of get us out of this trap, because, you know, we used to have a really big antibiotic pipeline, but it’s drying up. I mean, we’re getting to the point now where they’re just basically no new drugs being developed. And so that means is that we basically only have this the stuff that was developed over the past 50 years. And as those things fail, there’s nothing taking its place. So so we need to I think we need to change the pipeline rather than making these horrible ethical choices about who gets to live and who dies. 

I think it’s interesting that part of the reason we’re in this mess to begin with is that in some ways antibiotics were overprescribed or people were taking them for viruses. 

You know, they got they got a cold and they they they run to the doctor, get antibiotics, which, you know, over the population is a very bad thing. But there’s the the other side of the argument, of course, now is that what’s also becoming more popular is to take a get a vaccine for a lot of these viruses that that come around and make us miserable. So the flu vaccine in particular this year has gotten a lot of attention because there’s been seemingly a huge outbreak of flu in the U.S.. And so I wanted to ask you a little bit about your thinking of, you know, there there are certain guidelines about who should get the flu vaccine. And there’s an argument for, you know, if you’re healthy, you know, 30 something, you don’t need the flu vaccine. But the flu vaccine is 100 percent effective. And the people who get sick and die from it are usually immunocompromised and maybe can’t get this particular vaccine. So if most the population gets the vaccine and then the incidence of flu is is lower than the whole population helps. But getting the vaccine or not is an individual decision. So from your talking to epidemiologists and people who study this, what is the current thinking for? Should everybody be getting a flu vaccine or should we really limit it to people who are pregnant or elderly or otherwise compromised? 

Everybody should be getting flu vaccines as a public health measure. And if you don’t get it, if you don’t get a vaccine because you say, well, I’m healthy so I don’t need it, then what you’re saying is, in effect, I don’t really care that much about little children and old people because, you know, E. there’s a good chance you will get the flu if you’re not vaccinated and you will be spreading it to other people. Now, if you get the flu vaccine, there’s no guarantee that you’re going to be flu free. 

The numbers I’ve seen, I think it’s around 60 percent, something like that effective. So it’s not a panacea. But. If everyone gets a vaccine that reduces your chances of getting the flu by 60 percent, then there’s a lot less flu around. We need a better flu vaccine. There’s no doubt about that. But even if we get a better flu vaccine, it’s not going to do much good unless a lot of people take it. And so the Center for Disease Control just came out recently just with a report just saying that Americans are taking nowhere near enough vaccines as they should. Flu vaccine coverage in general is way too low. And, you know, part of it, I think, is people who are just suspicious of vaccines. I think a lot of it is just it’s kind of a pain in the neck to deal with it. 

Our medical system is not set up to to make it sort of straightforward, you know, like and it’s kind of quirky. 

So, for example, you know, you or I could walk in to a drugstore and get a flu shot and which is great and easy. That’s how I did it. But if kids are going to get a flu shot, they have to, you know, have an appointment with the pediatrician and they and they need to wait for their get to get their batch of the vaccine, which, you know, is a whole crazy system of its own. You know, we we still make flu vaccines from chicken eggs. You know, this isn’t a technology event in the Eisenhower administration. And we should be using cell cultures or just, you know, synthesizing DNA, just doing there just lots of 21st century ways that we could be developing better vaccines and more of them and and doing it faster. So that that’s what I where I think part of the priority has to be. 

Certainly, there’s been a lot of controversy about vaccines recently in the news. And of course, much of our listeners will will know this, too, is that the link with autism and vaccines is been soundly debunked. And we know that that there’s no evidence for any such link. But you you mentioned that the vehicle in which the vaccine is delivered is actually a cause for a lot of people to say they don’t want to get the vaccine. Is there you know, some people say, well, I’m allergic to the vehicle or, you know, there’s some kind of other reaction that they might have to at first of. Is there any real danger in terms of that, you know, for getting the vaccine in this particular vehicle? And if there is are what are we doing to improve the vaccines? As you mentioned, we need better vehicles. Is this is this a fruitful area of research or is it something that people think is not that important? 

So with flu vaccines, just to stay with them, the way it works is that a chicken or egg is inoculated with a weakened flu virus and the virus replicates in there. And then then they draw out the viruses and they they often will just kill them. So they’re told they can’t replicate at all anymore. And then you get injected with it and it trains your immune system to recognize other flu viruses with their particular combination of proteins on their surface. 

You know, they they purified as much as they can, but there can be a little bit of that, you know, egg material in the vaccine. Some people, a very small percentage of people are allergic to eggs. So if you have an egg allergy, getting that kind of vaccine is you may not be a good idea. But there are alternative ways. There are now spray vaccines and other things that you can use. The problem there is that those are harder to make and they’re more expensive. And so, you know, there’s still like a big priority on this sort of egg procedure. But like I said, I mean, it’s slow. It’s a technology that was invented 50 years ago. It’s it’s quite ridiculous. And so so there are these new options that people are looking into. So, for example, one of the most intriguing ones is a it’s another virus, actually, that does this. It’s a it’s a what you do is you genetically engineer a virus called a back Ella virus so that it carries off a gene for one flue protein. You infect insect cells with this virus. This PACULA virus, because insects are their natural host and they do this very odd thing where they go into a cell and they take over the cell and they make it make lots of new viruses, but also lots of proteins so that the viruses are packed in a very tough, big protein ball. So in these genetically engineered viruses, what happens is that they make a big protein ball of this flu virus protein. So you just pull that stuff out, you purify it, and now you’ve got pure flue protein, which you can. And use as a vaccine, and so that just got approved by the FDA, so that Vye vaccine itself is not incredibly effective. It’s actually a little less effective than the egg vaccine, but it just shows you that there are these new avenues. Other people are trying to use tobacco plants to grow these proteins. What’s nice about these things is that they’re a lot faster. You know, it takes months for the egg vaccine. These these could take days or days or weeks health encouraging to hear that. 

And we are at least making some progress on that front. And on that note, I just want to remind our listeners that several of your books are available through our Web site, Puttnam Inquiry Dawg, including microcosm E. Coli and the New Signs of Life, a planet of viruses, parasite Rex and one of my favorite books of yours. It’s science ink, tattoos of the science of Sassy’s, beautiful pictures of all kinds of scientists. And there are science obsessed people and their tattoos. 

I’d like to end this conversation by coming back to something that you’ve you’ve really become a master at, which is, of course, bringing science to the public. 

And I want to ask you about your opinion on the open access policy that some journals now have for original science being available to the public for free versus having to go through a paywall to get a particular article. What are your thoughts about the publishing, the academic publishing industry, the directions that it’s heading and how we might be able to get more information out to people? 

It’s been really fascinating to watch this movement gain strength. I mean, there was a time where, you know, I knew a couple of people who were strong advocates for open access and they were just shouting to the wind, basically. And now or at the point where scientists who get funded from the National Institutes of Health have to to posit an open access copy of their paper with the National Library of Medicine within six months of it being published. 

So all of a sudden, there’s all this information that you can get to using something like Google Scholar, for example. And you did the copyright is such that, you know, you can repurpose this material, you can take a graph and you can reprint. And you don’t have to ask anyone’s permission as long as you just don’t change it, obviously. So for me as a journalist, it makes things much faster, much easier, much more efficient. 

You know, if I if I’m writing a blog post and I want to drop in a really useful figure. It takes me five seconds to do it. And so that makes a big difference to me personally as a journalist. And yeah, you’re also at the point now where somebody in Botswana who just has a halfway decent Internet connection can get hold of papers that he or she would not have been able to get, you know, if they were in bound volumes. There are a lot of questions, I think still left open. I mean, someone still has to pay for scientific literature. 

To be published, even online, someone’s got to pay the bills to get it’s the servers running to typeset things, to edit things and you know, these things aren’t free. 

And so so, no, you know, there’s an issue that, you know, scientists, in order to publish in some open access journals, have to like pay a lot of money. So that makes that adds to the expense of doing scientific research. So it’s you know, the flip side, though, is that, you know, if you’ve ever tried to get a scientific paper from a journal and you don’t have access to it, you might have to pay like fifty dollars, one hundred dollars, 200 dollars for a paper that’s a few pages long. You know, maybe the author has been dead for ten years. But, you know, the company still wants you to pay a ridiculous amount of money. So, you know, I don’t know if anyone’s anyone’s really done the math to figure out, like the relative expenses of the system we have now versus a totally open access system. I would guess that would be a lot cheaper if we were to go out all open access and there’d be all these other advantages. 

Yeah, I mean, I think there’s also something to be said for the quality control, of course. Now, if you’re if you’re paying to publish, you could have an influx of a lot of corporations, for example, putting out papers about their products under the guise of an academic paper. So there needs to be some checks and balances. But hopefully people will understand which are the journals that have that kind of integrity. And. And although, as you know, when I do my own research and of course, you know, I want access to the papers as I can. But in the interest of full disclosure, I do get some. 

I’m an editor of a journal called NeuroPace and I get some funding which allows me to continue to serve as the editor. But I do see that this open access model is. Is where the future is heading. And at least if we can all come together and somehow something, you know, continue to help the publishing industry, maybe by having subscriptions through institutions, etc., that would be really helpful. So thank you very much for being on point of inquiry. It’s great to talk to you. And we’re here at the Science Online Conference. Is there anything else you want to let the listeners know about where they can find your work or where they should find your writings? Coming up. 

I have a Web site. Carl Zimmer dot com CRL the i m m e r and I try to keep that up to date with my upcoming talks and with articles that published recently in my book so they can start there. 

All right. Thanks very much, Carl Zimmer. Thank you. 

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Point of inquiry is produced by Adam Isaac in Amherst, New York. And our music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Waylan. Today’s intro feature, Debbie Goddard. I’m your host Indre Viskontas. 

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