How a podcasting virologist is bringing The Small Questions to a wider audience

Kevin Lyons

Most students studying science at university will inevitably become familiar with the names and works of a wide range of popular science communicators, such as Brian Cox, Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker (to name but a few). Many students, however, may unintentionally overlook the work of renowned virologist Vincent Racaniello – arguably one of the most thoughtful and prolific science communicators of our time.

It seems likely that we are drawn to the words of people like Brian Cox, Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker in the hope that they may lend us some insight into The Big Questions: What is the Universe made of? Where did our early-human ancestors come from? How does the human mind work?

Such questions are – and I think ought to be – inherently interesting to any thinking person; the far-reaching implications of the answers even more so. However, when it comes to The Small Questions – that is, issues relating to the world of viruses, bacteria, archaea, fungi and protozoa – it seems the general public are somewhat less engaged, and are thus relatively ill-informed, despite the fact that these issues often have far-reaching implications too. One look at any list of bestselling popular science books should be enough to convince anyone of the obvious preference for comets and consciousness over cholera and clostridia. Whether this preference can be attributed to the lack of hip, soundbite-friendly microbiologists frequenting our late-night chat shows, TV debates and quizzes, I don’t know. The world of physics sure has plenty of those. Nevertheless, I would argue that microbiological questions – and in particular those with profound implications on global health – are often of greater immediate importance than the perhaps more trendy, but ultimately less urgent Big Questions.

Recent events in Brazil – highlighted by the 2016 Summer Olympics – such as the continuing threat of Zika virus and the discovery of so-called antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” in the bay of Rio de Janeiro, are indicative of the fact that the global community has a great number of microbiology-related issues to address in the not-too-distant future. How exactly does the Zika virus cross the placental barrier and cause microcephaly? What alternative methods can be used to tackle rising levels of antibiotic resistance in the post-antibiotic era? How can the Global Polio Eradication Initiative overcome Taliban-led anti-vaccination campaigns to successfully distribute vaccines to people in rural Afghanistan and Pakistan (the two remaining endemic strongholds of wild poliovirus)?

As with any important issues, it is always refreshing to find and consume the words of people who really know what they’re talking about. For many issues – such as politics, economics and current affairs – we know where to look for such people. But on the topic of microbiology, not so much. This is where Prof. Racaniello comes in.

Vincent Racaniello is currently the Higgins Professor of Microbiology & Immunology at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City. While working at MIT in the early 1980s – as a post-doctoral fellow in the lab of Nobel Prize-winning virologist David Baltimore – he determined the complete nucleotide sequence of the 7.4-kb type 1 poliovirus genome, by sequencing a cloned cDNA copy of the viral RNA genome. He also showed that the cDNA clone of the poliovirus genome was itself infectious. This was the first such demonstration for an animal virus, and a remarkable discovery. Following his stint at MIT, he moved to Columbia University, set up his own lab, and was involved in the identification and characterization of the poliovirus receptor in primate cells – an integral membrane glycoprotein of the immunoglobulin superfamily, now known as CD155. He continued to work on poliovirus for a total of 35 years, and has only recently turned his attention to Zika virus.

In addition to his research, Prof. Racaniello has done a lot to encourage scientists, budding scientists and non-scientists alike to enhance their understanding of the “unseen world of microbes”.

For starters, he has posted videos of the complete set of lectures from his undergraduate virology course at Columbia University on YouTube every year for the past four years. He went a few steps further in 2015 and 2016 by publishing the entire course materials online: including lecture slides, study questions and extra reading. He is co-author of the Principles of Virology textbook – the best and most aesthetically-pleasing textbook I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. He is the founder of MicrobeTV – an independent life-sciences podcast network – where he hosts or co-hosts a variety of podcasts with experts from across the US. These podcasts include This Week in Virology (TWiV), This Week in Parasitism (TWiP), This Week in Evolution (TWiEVO), This Week in Microbiology (TWiM) and Urban Agriculture. He maintains a personal virology blog, a Zika Diaries blog (where he writes about his recent research on Zika virus), a YouTube channel and a Virus Watch video series.

Needless to say, he’s a pretty busy guy.

I was first made aware of Prof. Racaniello’s flagship podcast, This Week in Virology (TWiV), in a lecture given by Dr. Kim Roberts (Ussher Assistant Professor of Virology at Trinity College Dublin) towards the beginning of last year. I proceeded to listen to the introductory Virology 101 episodes, and quickly found myself hooked. More recently, I have been particularly interested in Prof. Racaniello’s blogposts on the subject of Zika virus research. A hot research topic at the moment – progress in this area has not been without obstacle. Although many researchers are collaborating and sharing real-time data in an attempt to advance our knowledge of the virus as quickly as possible, others – most likely driven by the selfish desire to publish first and boost their careers – have been withholding valuable data and new protocols in a way that slows progress considerably and potentially costs lives. Journals too, are cashing in on the trendiness of Zika research, by effectively lowering the standards of peer-review in an attempt to publish mediocre or controversial papers for profit and publicity.

When Prof. Racaniello started his first podcast, This Week in Virology (TWiV), back in September 2008, I had just started my second year of secondary school, and presumably knew next-to-nothing about viruses. Looking at my Junior Certificate science textbook now, I see that the chapter on Microbiology and Biotechnology was a measly three-and-a-half pages long (barely), and the sum of all human knowledge on viruses was reduced to just six sentences. More space was given to the question of How the Kidneys make Urine – which I’ll admit, is pretty fascinating stuff.

The truly prolific outreach efforts of Prof. Racaniello have caused him to be unofficially dubbed Earth’s Virology Professor – a title which he proudly bears. And if you take anything away from reading this, let it be that you have been made aware of his existence, as well as the existence of a wealth of free, informative commentary and resources on virology, microbiology and much much more.

Check it out.

Featured Image: by Chris Suspect