Monthly Archives: February 2012

An interesting look at using skeletal remains and historical reports to reconstruct the geographic distribution of a vector-borne disease.


England once looked very different. Much of southern Britain was marshland for most of the island’s occupied history. These bogs, fens, and marshes ensured that areas of virtual wilderness persisted  from before Roman Britain through the Norman period and beyond. Despite the difficulties of using fenlands, these areas were not only occupied throughout the Anglo-Saxon period, but important centers like Croyland, Bardney, and Ely eventually developed in the marsh.

The largest fenland region was known as ‘the Wash’.  This low-lying region drained four rivers into  a square bay of the North Sea that forms the corner between Lincolnshire and Norfolk. In Anglo-Saxon times, this tidal marsh and bog was a vast border region between the region of Lindsey and East Anglia.  Places like Croyland and Ely were islands in the wetlands.  The eighth century Life of Guthlac describes the environment of Croyland when Guthlac arrived:

There is…

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More biologist–poets

It always warms my heart to find other literary–science types out there.  I recently came across Slava Zaitsev, a Russian structural molecular biologist / protein crystallographer and poet. At his blog, you can find Zaitsev’s original poems in Russian, their English translations, and links to his published work (such as one collection, Primordial Mystery, centered on the concept of crystallinity). I look forward to reading and looking at the connections he makes between, to take from Francis Crick, “molecules and men.” I encourage readers to have a look themselves and check back here later for some thoughts.

Where immunology and a poet meet

The other day I posted a poem written by the Czech immunologist/poet Miroslav Holub, who was said to be one of that country’s greatest poets of the century, as well as a well-published research scientist. In the preface to one of Holub’s collections of poems, Sagittal Section, Lewis Thomas, another biologist–poet, noted that Holub was composing what both scientists and poets filter everyday live for, those “points of connection between things in the world which seem to most people unconnected.”

October 21st, 1993, David Morley, an environmental scientist–turned lyric writer, interviewed Holub for roughly an hour about the immunologist’s thoughts on performing his poetry, the greater relationship between science and the arts, and the impact of the 20th century’s events in the Czech Republic on Holub’s writing. As a whole, the interview is a meditation on living between two worlds that inform each other in a reciprocal fashion. Holub’s words function as a subtle counter to those artist narratives of a solitarily focused creator, one whose life is the making of their craft and whose art is in turn their life.

The immunologist–poet allows instead a process, a space where exchange of idea and inspiration occur, where scientific discovery and lyric writing are neither mutually exclusive categories nor entirely dependent acts in the dance.  And yet as much as these two elements of Holub’s life inform his view of the world, they are not an all—there is more to life than work and production, Holub asserts. To take one’s self so seriously, to see their art or science as an absolutism, is to be a “workaholic,” a word the interviewee abhors in the English language. Instead, life should be about play, about a childhood sense of exploration and humility—Holub sees a different path. As he notes during the exchange, “I am serious about science, and I am serious about my poetry, but I do not take myself seriously.” Humbling words from a humbling man.

Find the full audio recording here.

Another parasitology blog

While on the topic of host-parasite interactions, I recommend looking through an interesting science research blog, The Parasite Diary. There’s a trend in the blogosphere toward “research blogging.” While most science blogs tend to discuss scientific research in some way or another, research blogging ( aims specifically to discuss, in detail, and without lessening analytic rigor, the results of the peer-reviewed literature in a given field. The Parasite Diary takes this approach as pertains to classic parasitology: studies examining life cycles, pathogen interactions with the host immune system, systematics–in other words, a good deal of interesting lab-based research to examine life from the parasite’s point of view.

Phylogenetic humility

Just a welcoming sentiment from Robert M. Sapolsky in his collection of science essays, Monkeyluv. Sapolsky is a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford, and his essays, often humorous, delve into neuroscience, hormones, and human behavior. Oliver Sacks has called him “one of the best scientist-writers of our time,” and while I wouldn’t put Sapolsky on the same pedestal as I do Gould, or Levi, or Thomas when it comes to prose and insight, the man certainly has his moments, which manifest in me dog-earring a corner of a page. This one stood out to me this morning on the 3 train to work while reading an essay titled ” Bugs on the Brain.” As someone who gets excited over pathogenic protozoa and animal behavior, I muttered “Toxoplasma gondii” upon seeing the heading.

Like most people who come across any mention of Toxoplasma (it gets a fair amount of press; e.g., via Carl Zimmer), Sapolsky is interested in the precision of how the protozoa can manipulate behavior. The organism relies on a simple and common two-host system to complete its life cycle: the predator-prey interaction of rodent and cat. Rodents ingest the protozoa, which encysts in the mammal, with particular affinity for denning in the brain. When rodents are consumed by felines, Toxoplasma can reproduce, new organisms are shed through feces, which happen to be a food source for rodents and thus how the life cycle comes full circle. Many pathogens that rely on multiple hosts influence behavior, and there is a bevy of literature that describes just this, particularly with tapeworms. In the case of Toxoplasma, the protozoa interferes with a rodent’s natural aversion to feline pheromones; interferes is a weak term–the organism makes the rodent attracted to feline odor, increasing the probability that it becomes successful prey.

What interests Sapolsky so about this host-parasite interaction is that a rodent infected with Toxoplasma gondii otherwise behaves normally. As he notes, infected rodents maintain their social status within the system’s hierarchy, they continue to mate and thus sense pheromones of the opposite sex, and their recognition of other vertebrate odors isn’t tampered with in the least. The protzoa is simply able to manipulate the recognition of and reaction to the pheromones of one predator, that of the definitive host. To Sapolsky (and most of us interested in the long-term interplay between parasites and their host), this is evidence of how counter-intuitive and beautiful evolutionary process can be. Sapolsky takes the opportunity to highlight Toxoplasma gondii as a correction to teleological interpretations of evolution: its processes aren’t directional, aren’t progressive.  As he notes, “We are certainly not the most evolved species around, nor the least vulnerable. Nor the cleverest.” But the punctum of his message, to borrow a term from Roland Barthes (that which “pierces” the viewer/reader), is the statement, “we need phylogenetic humility.”