TWiV 149: Live at ICAAC in the Windy City

twiv at icaacHosts: Vincent Racaniello, Rich Condit, Mark Pallansch, and Trine Tsouderos

Vincent, Rich, Mark, and Trine discuss science and medicine in journalism and the eradication of poliovirus at the 51st Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy (ICAAC).

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Click the arrow above to play, or right-click to download TWiV 149 (62 MB .mp3, 86 minutes).

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Weekly Science Picks

Rich – Parachute use to prevent death (Brit Med J)
Vincent –
Ian Lipkin’s Op-Ed on Contagion and a review of the movie (both NY Times)

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MichaelBacteria billboard for Contagion (YouTube)

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TWiV 119: Science and journalism with David Tuller

science journalismHosts: Vincent Racaniello and David Tuller

On episode #119 of the podcast This Week in Virology, Vincent and journalist David Tuller converse about the state of science reporting by the press.

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Click the arrow above to play, or right-click to download TWiV #119 (43 MB .mp3, 60 minutes).

Subscribe to TWiV (free) in iTunes , at the Zune Marketplace, by the RSS feed, or by email, or listen on your mobile device with the Microbeworld app.

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Send your virology questions and comments (email or mp3 file) to You can also post articles that you would like us to discuss at and tag them with twiv.

Viruses and journalism: Poliovirus, HIV, and sperm

polio_hivIn the summer of 1989, two papers about viruses were published in high-profile journals. One described the engineering of a recombinant poliovirus bearing on its surface an antigen from HIV-1. The second paper claimed that transgenic mice could be made by adding DNA to sperm before using them to fertilize eggs. Both reports played a role in a television interview I did with Earl Ubell of CBS News.

I was reading the Cell paper describing a new way to make transgenic mice when I received a call from CBS News. They wanted me to comment on a report that had just been released by the journal Nature, describing the production of a recombinant poliovirus bearing an antigen from HIV-1. When rabbits were inoculated with the recombinant poliovirus (the authors called it a chimeric virus), antibodies were made which could block infection with HIV-1. CBS wanted to talk because I had developed the technology to genetically engineer polioviruses.

Within an hour, science correspondent Earl Ubell arrived in my lab with a camera crew. We chatted while they set up their equipment and began to record one of my postdoctoral fellows, Gerardo Kaplan, moving about the laboratory. Ubell asked me what I thought about the polio-HIV story. I told him that it was interesting but would probably not be useful for preventing AIDS because only a small piece of HIV-1 protein could be inserted into the poliovirus capsid. Then we started talking about the sperm – transgenic mouse story, which he had heard about. I was more positive about that story; I noted that the findings could revolutionize biology.

In a few moments a microphone was clipped to my shirt and the camera began recording our conversation. Ubell began asking me questions about the polio-HIV experiment. We discussed how the virus was engineered, why it was possible to insert foreign protein into poliovirus, and the utility of this discovery. I was not positive about the future of this technology for vaccines, but I did point out its potential for research. His last question was about the sperm – transgenic mouse paper: what did I think about that? I responded, “I think that if this report is correct, then it’s going to be fabulous”. Then he packed up and left.

Several weeks later one of my students sent me a copy of the final program that had been shown on television. I was surprised to find that just one of my comments was used, and it had nothing to do with the polio-HIV story. It was the answer I had given in response to Mr. Ubell’s question about the sperm – transgenic mouse experiment, which of course was not the topic of the TV piece. I don’t know who made the juxtaposition, but I found it duplicitous. As a result of this experience, for the next 20 years I limited my contact with journalists.

Here is Mr. Ubell’s June 1989 report for CBS News. To his credit, he did get the science right, and he pronounced my name correctly. Unfortunately, while poliovirus antigen chimeras have been useful in the research lab, they have not been used as vaccines. And making transgenic mice by putting DNA into sperm turned out to be wrong.

Lavitrano, M. (1989). Sperm cells as vectors for introducing foreign DNA into eggs: Genetic transformation of mice Cell, 57 (5), 717-723 DOI: 10.1016/0092-8674(89)90787-3

Viruses and journalism: Off-the-shelf chemicals

artificial_poliovirusI have had many opportunities to speak with journalists of different kinds during the more than 30 years that I have studied viruses. I wrote previously about my negative experience with CNN. I’d like to relate a much more positive encounter with newspaper reporters.

As a postdoctoral fellow in David Baltimore’s laboratory I was fortunate to have found that a cloned DNA copy of the RNA genome of poliovirus is infectious in mammalian cells. It was the first such finding for an animal virus and made it possible to create and genetically modify viruses.

These findings attracted a good amount of press coverage. On November 15, 1981, the New York Times published an article by Harold Schmeck entitled “Polio Virus Made With Artificial Genetic Material” (click image above for a larger view). I was a bit taken aback by the headline: up to that point in my career I’d had few encounters with journalists. What did he mean by ‘artificial genetic material’? I’d placed the viral genome in a bacterial plasmid, which I didn’t view as artificial nucleic acid. The article began:

Artificially fabricated genetic material has been used for the first time to produce an active, infectious polio virus in the laboratory…The genetic material was of a kind never used by the virus in nature. Furthermore, the starting material was fabricated from off-the-shelf chemicals.

It’s true that poliovirus nucleic acid is never found in a bacterial plasmid in nature. But what did he mean by ‘off-the-shelf chemicals’? Then I realized: we had explained to Mr. Schmeck that poliovirus RNA was converted to a DNA copy using the enzyme reverse transcriptase. The enzyme was provided with the four nucleoside triphosphates – ATP, TTP, CTP, and GTP – which were used to produce the DNA copy. Those were the ‘off-the-shelf chemicals’: not exactly the kind of thing you might find in the local supermarket, but I got the analogy. In the end I liked the article; it was factually correct and presented in an engaging manner.

On the following Sunday, in ‘News of the Week in Review’, the Times included a short piece on our results in the ‘Ideas and Trends’ section entitled ‘Reinventing a Polio Virus’ (click to view). It began:

Off-the-shelf chemicals are seldom the stuff of which genetic material is made. But scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology used just that to manufacture the genetic core of a polio virus. Then, even the scientists were surprised. When tested on cell samples, the artificially contrived virus appeared indistinguishable from the real thing; both initiated polio infection.

I suppose the off-the-shelf analogy helped make it clearer to readers that we had done something different. In 1981 there was no Science Times section and readers did not have the amount of science journalism that we have today.

After Mr. Schmeck’s article was published, he told us that it was originally scheduled for the front page of the newspaper. But November 15, 1981 was the day the first space shuttle was launched, and as a result our story was pushed to the inner pages. Not bad, though, for my first encounter with journalists.

Later in 1981 I was interviewed for a BBC radio program about my work on poliovirus. I’ve located a recording of that interview and will post it here tomorrow.

Racaniello, V., & Baltimore, D. (1981). Cloned poliovirus complementary DNA is infectious in mammalian cells Science, 214 (4523), 916-919 DOI: 10.1126/science.6272391

Viruses and journalism

During the more than 30 years that I have studied viruses, I have had many opportunities to speak with journalists of different kinds. For the most part, the print journalists have done a good job at accurately presenting the science, but I cannot say the same for my experience on radio and TV. I want to share some of these recordings and my thoughts about the gap between science and broadcast journalism.

I was interviewed by Katy Pilgrim of CNN in May 2009, shortly after the emergence of swine-origin influenza H1N1. There had been a number of cases in New York City and Ms. Pilgrim was looking for comments on school closings. She came to my laboratory with a cameraman, spent 10 minutes talking with me off-camera followed by 10 minutes on-camera. As you will see in the news clip beloww that played on that evening’s news, only 10 seconds of my comments were used. Ms. Pilgrim was looking for someone to say that NYC schools should have been closed for the remainder of the academic year. I did not think such closing was warranted by the mild nature of the influenza outbreak. This was not what CNN wanted to hear, so my comments were not used.

What I learned from this interview is that CNN went out looking for a specific story: they wanted to stir up controversy over the fact that the NYC school system remained open. Because in the end, controversy helps ratings. But I didn’t tell them what they wanted to hear, so my comments were not newsworthy.