Researchers tend to rely on scientific journals—sometimes specific, narrowly oriented ones—to obtain the latest updates on progress in their fields. Although many of us listen to, watch or read mainstream news, we seldom consider that the mainstream press can catalyze scientific inquiry. While driving to work one morning in August 2012, I heard a news piece on National Public Radio (NPR) that stoked my curiosity. The report focused on a sick boa constrictor named Larry and a healthy boa named Balthazar. Something was making Larry and other annulated tree boas sick. Two scientists at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), Mark Stenglein and Joe DeRisi, who study infectious diseases at the genome level, were determined to find a cause.
The Hunt for Collaborators
After listening to the report, I hunted down the paper in mBio on which the NPR report was based. I then contacted the UCSF researchers. They had discovered a new group of viruses that cause something known as inclusion body diseases, and these viruses might be related to the deadly Ebola virus due to their similarity in envelope glycoproteins. I found this finding intriguing and germane to my own work.
My lab had been studying the mechanisms of glycoproteins from Ebola virus, Marburg virus and HIV when I heard about the boa constrictor work. Envelope glycoproteins are essential mechanisms used by “enveloped” viruses, such as Ebola virus and HIV, to achieve human infection. I was curious about whether these viruses and Ebola virus are truly structurally and physiologically similar, which would imply that they may have a common ancestor.
Two members of my team—Zhou Dai, a postdoc, and Jayne Koellhoffer, a Medical Scientist Training Program student—and I initiated a collaboration with UCSF. We worked with another Einstein team, led by biochemist Steve Almo. Together, all three teams studied the structural characterization of the glycoprotein GP2 core domain of this group of enveloped viruses.
Discovering Viral Structures
After about a year, we published our findings in the Journal of Molecular Biology, noting that we had determined the three-dimensional structure GP2 core domain . The structure is indeed similar to that of Ebola virus. This implies that the two viruses are related not only genetically, but also in the mechanism by which they infect the host. In the meantime, our collaborators at UCSF found that these new viruses resemble Ebola virus in that they require similar cellular pathways for infection.
Shortly after the first identification of this new group of viruses, other members of this same virus group were identified in Europe, indicating the broad geographic existence of these viruses. So far, there has been no report of human infection by these viruses, but it is now clear that some features of their infection mechanism are similar to that of Ebola virus, which is a human pathogen.
Being Open to Information Sources
This work all started from the piece I had heard on NPR. Though it may seem counterintuitive, it’s not entirely surprising. Scientific news covered in mainstream media targets a broader audience than papers in narrowly specialized, peer-reviewed journals. The type of science covered by the mainstream press often involves multidisciplinary research areas. This creates a unique opportunity for scientists to look beyond their areas of expertise and reinforces the importance of team science.
While making lasting scientific discoveries is more complex than flipping on the radio, my experience shows the role nonscientific public media can play in fostering important and fruitful collaborations among scientists with different backgrounds and expertise. This can expedite our understanding of dangerous pathogens and disease-causing organisms.