December 11th, 2008
05:03 PM ET

Fighting viruses with viruses

Program Note: CNN’s award-winning Planet in Peril returns this year to examine the conflict between growing populations and natural resources. Anderson Cooper, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, and Lisa Ling travel to the front lines of this worldwide battle.
Watch Planet In Peril: Battle Lines Thursday 9p ET

We devote several days on the blog to smart insight and commentary related to the special.

Dr. Nathan Wolfe
Global Viral Forecasting Initiative

If an alien were to land on earth and write an encyclopedia of life on our planet, what would it include? Would it focus on humans? Animals? Plants, perhaps? In fact, the vast majority of life on earth is invisible to us. Microbes - including viruses, as well as bacteria and their lesser known cousins the archaea - are by far the dominant lifeforms on this planet. They would fill 28 of 30 volumes in our planet’s encyclopedia!

This invisible universe of microbial life - which I call the microcosmos - pervades the planet and even our own bodies: Bacterial cells on and in us outnumber our own cells by 10 to 1; the genetic information they hold outnumbers our own by 1000 to 1. We feel human, yet our bodies are actually complex communities of human and microbial cells living side-by-side.

And it increasingly appears that viruses - those tiny nano-creatures that must infect cells to live - are the most populous and diverse lifeform of all. Viruses infect not only humans and animals, but also bacterial, plant and fungal cells. It is thought that nearly every form of cell-based life harbors a unique virus. Every species of plant, animal, fungus, bacteria… Everything. This, by definition, would make viruses the most diverse forms of life on the planet.

The diversity, mass, and impact of the tiny creatures in the microcosmos staggers the imagination. And increasingly, this hidden parallel world is becoming visible to us. New molecular techniques are providing us, for the first time ever, with the ability to visualize and understand the dominant forms of life on the planet…As a biologist I believe there could be no better time in history in which to live. When I established the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative (GVFI), the main goal was to chart the diversity of viruses infecting humans and the animals, and use this understanding to catch pandemics early. This seemed to me the most obvious application of the revolutionary new science of small life that's changing the way that we see our world.

Yet, as GVFI and other teams of biologists learn more about the microcosmos, we’ll have the potential for unearthing other fundamental discoveries as well. Novel vaccines - most of which are based on natural viruses - could be developed, and still-unknown viral causes of cancer could be identified, paving the way for more rapid and effective treatments. And these are only some of the many possible findings awaiting our discovery....

Editor's Note: Here are some snapshots of Nathan in the field with Anderson and Sanjay on Planet In Peril:

soundoff (One Response)
  1. Brandi - bottom of the boot

    well, Dr. Wolf, i am in love with you! how dare you keep your handsome self buried in the jungle!

    it is very apparent in your writing that you have great admiration for microbes. a virus is truly amazing in its mechanisms of defense. its difficult not to love them once you are introduced to both their abilities and inabilities not to mention their roles in the history of the planet and the future. i greatly admire your work and cant wait to see the show this evening. as a biologist myself (and current nursing student), i find this to be the most interesting topic of the entire PiP show. im so excited! lol

    December 11, 2008 at 5:31 pm |