Coronavirus: Made or born?
Two studies support the theory of a lab-created pathogen
Nearly 10 months after reports surfaced of a new coronavirus in Wuhan, China, scientists still do not know how it originated. Most scientists believe the virus, called SARS-CoV-2, jumped from an animal to humans. In February, an analysis published in the journal Nature found the new coronavirus had a genome 96 percent similar to one found in bats, suggesting it occurred naturally. But two studies released in May and September support the idea that Wuhan’s Institute of Virology might have genetically engineered the virus.
In the May study, Alina Chan, a molecular biologist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and colleagues noted that when a virus hops from one species to another, it changes rapidly to adapt to its new host. When the novel coronavirus jumped from humans to minks at European fur farms, it mutated in the animals immediately. “You actually see the rapid evolution happening,” Chan told Boston magazine. “Just in the first few weeks, the changes are quite drastic.”
But the coronavirus has barely mutated in humans since the earliest known cases, causing Chan to suspect someone adapted it for human transmission from the start. She acknowledged the mutations might have arisen in an earlier host species, where they happened to mirror the genetics to infect humans. But most mutations make it easier for a virus to thrive in its current host, not an unknown one.
The virus could also have circulated undetected among humans for months. In that case, stored samples should provide a trail of mutations, Chan said. So far, scientists have found nothing.
Another paper released Sept. 14 said SARS-CoV-2 possesses some unusual genetic features that suggest a laboratory modification. The study found the virus contains a protein site that makes it more contagious and does not typically occur in the wild.
The lab theory continues to draw criticism, however. Andrew Preston, an expert in microbial pathogenesis at the University of Bath, accused the researchers of bias. “The language of the report is reminiscent of a conspiracy theory,” he told Newsweek.
A group of public health scientists published a statement in The Lancet in March denying the virus escaped from a lab: “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.”
Other experts note neither of the papers has undergone peer review, in which fellow researchers vet a study before publication. But the authors say peer-reviewed journals censor research suggesting an unnatural origin of the virus, so evidence never gets to the public.
Some scientists might want to quash theories that COVID-19 came from a lab, Richard Ebright, a Rutgers University microbiologist, told Boston: “Avoiding restrictions on research funding, avoiding implementation of appropriate biosafety standards, and avoiding implementation of appropriate research oversight are powerful motivators.”
If the virus originated in a lab, that doesn’t mean someone released it intentionally. The Wuhan facility is one of dozens of labs around the world where scientists research ways to counteract deadly pathogens by altering them to make them more lethal or contagious. And China has a history of runaway diseases: SARS, a coronavirus that spread in humans in 2003, escaped from a Beijing lab twice, said Steven Mosher of the Population Research Institute in Virginia.
The studies do not prove the virus originated in a lab, but researchers must continue to investigate the possibility, Chan said: “We need to find where this came from, and close it down.”
Creatures of the midnight zone
Many unusual creatures live 3,300 to 13,000 feet below the ocean’s surface, like the mesmerizing bloodybelly comb jelly. But few have seen them because exploring the “midnight zone” is so difficult and expensive.
California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium plans to spend $15 million over the next two years to create the world’s first large-scale exhibition of deep-sea life.
It won’t be an easy task. The aquarium and its research institute own two large research vessels and several remotely operated vehicles with robotic arms designed to gently pluck deep-sea creatures from the water. But in an attempt to dislodge a bright orange brisingid, a 20-armed sea star, several of its arms popped off, forcing researchers to leave it behind.
For the past 20 years, the aquarium has tried with little success to keep different deep-sea species alive in captivity. Their natural habitat is nearly void of oxygen, with an average temperature of 39 degrees Fahrenheit and a pressure exceeding 5,000 pounds per square inch. Researchers have learned that most of the deep-sea species can survive at sea-level pressure if acclimated slowly.
“We don’t get any information about their behavior, how they mate, what they eat or how they live,” said Luiz Rocha, fish curator at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. “But when we have them in an aquarium, we can see all of that.” —J.B.
Fairy circle puzzle solved
In the Outback of western Australia, researchers in 2014 discovered circular, repetitive patterns of bare land about 13 feet wide and fringed with grass. Patterns of these polka dots can stretch for hundreds of miles, and ecologists have wondered how these “fairy circles” form ever since.
A study published in the Journal of Ecology on Sept. 21 solved the mystery.
“The intriguing thing is that the grasses are actively engineering their own environment by forming symmetrically spaced gap patterns,” said Stephan Getzin, one of the researchers from the University of Göttingen.
The grass forms into clumps at the edges of round crusts of land to create a barrier that maximizes water runoff to plants. The clumps provide shade, reducing soil surface temperatures by about 77 degrees Fahrenheit during the hottest part of the day, allowing the germination and growth of new grasses.
According to the study, the fairy circles conform to the Turing pattern theory. Scientists use the physics concept to explain symmetrical patterns in nature such as the ripples in sand dunes, stripes in clouds, or spots on animal coats. —J.B.
Proof of ancient literacy
For decades, many archaeologists thought only a handful of scribes could read in ancient Judah. But new research suggests many more people were literate.
In a Sept. 9 study in PLOS One, researchers at Tel Aviv University analyzed 18 ancient texts, dating back to the First Temple period around 600 B.C. They found at least 12 authors wrote the texts.
Archaeologists unearthed the writing on pottery shards, or ostraca, at the Tel Arad site, an outpost that housed 20 to 30 soldiers on the southern border of the kingdom. The texts contained routine instructions about soldier movement and orders from higher ranks of Judah’s army. Yana Gerber, one of the researchers, explained the commanding ranks and liaison officers must have been able to read. Since someone had to teach them, it suggests Judah at the time possessed an educational system. —J.B.
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