The origin of a virus
Experts try to pinpoint where COVID-19 came from
While scientists scramble to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, others are working to unravel the mystery of how the new virus developed. It seems to have jumped from an animal host to humans at a market in Wuhan, China, but theories about where it originated continue to surface.
Steven Mosher of the Population Research Institute in Virginia believes researchers at the National Biosafety Laboratory in the Wuhan Institute of Virology may have created the pathogen, which then escaped from the lab. China has a history of runaway diseases: SARS escaped from a Beijing lab twice, Mosher wrote for the New York Post.
Officials traced the novel coronavirus outbreak to a live animal market fewer than 10 miles from the Wuhan lab, whose scientists have confirmed they study coronaviruses. The close proximity of the market to a lab experimenting with dangerous pathogens is too great a coincidence to be chance, Mosher told The Scientist: “I think the odds against that are just astronomical.”
Other scientists decry such notions as conspiracy theories. No scientific evidence exists to support the idea that anyone manufactured SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, according to a Feb. 26 article in Emerging Microbes and Infections. A group of public health scientists published a statement in The Lancet on March 7 denying the virus originated in a lab: “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.”
Viruses regularly jump from animals to people. Researchers linked bats to the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa and to the SARS outbreak that began in 2002 in China. An analysis published in the journal Nature suggested the new coronavirus has a genome 96 percent similar to a one found in bats. Many scientists believe the virus jumped to intermediary animal hosts before infecting humans. Bats often serve as hosts for viruses: They make up 25 percent of all mammals, each species carries its own pathogens, and they can host a variety of viruses without getting sick.
The market in Wuhan likely created a perfect storm for the virus could jump to people, said Thomas Gillespie, an Emory University disease ecologist. Live animal markets bring together many species from different parts of the world. Animals in captivity can’t eat the way they would in the wild, and stress lowers the effectiveness of their immune systems. Market owners house the animals in cages where they defecate on one another, and they butcher them where their blood can easily spread pathogens.
Gillespie also noted that shrinking natural habitats cause species to crowd together and come into closer contact with humans. That would also result in more species-jumping pathogens.
Reviving ancient grains that date to Biblical times may help offset drought, according to scientists at the University of Nevada, Reno. The researchers in the driest U.S. state are experimenting with teff, an ancient grain that originated in Ethiopia. Teff needs only a quarter of the water required by alfalfa and thrives in a shorter growing season. It’s gluten-free and has more iron and fiber, making it good for livestock fodder. “It’s one of a range of old, climate-resistant grains, some dating back over 7,000 years, that researchers globally are trying to revive, as the answer to food security challenges of the future,” John Cushman, one of the researchers, told Ozy.
Global agriculture tends to concentrate on a few staple grains like wheat, rice, corn, or soybeans. But that makes them more susceptible to damage from pests, diseases, and weather patterns. Ancient grains can withstand dry seasons and temperature changes and offer more nutritional value than corn or wheat.
Researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia are trying to isolate ancient strains of wheat, while projects like Europe’s Protein2Food explore protein-rich grains like quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat. —J.B.
That box of cornstarch tucked away in the back of your cupboard can do more than thicken gravy. Scientists from the Agricultural Research Service in Peoria, Ill., are experimenting with new uses for the white powder, including killing mosquitoes, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced.
The researchers developed a process to convert cornstarch into a new class of material called amylose inclusion complex (AIC). When combined with essential oils that kill mosquito larvae, the droplets of AIC surround the drops of oil and protect them from heat or oxidation that can reduce their potency. Oil droplets encased with AIC can disperse in water, increasing their effectiveness against mosquito larvae that often live in reservoirs of standing water like old tires. In lab experiments, the essential oil emulsions killed the larvae of yellow fever mosquitoes within 24 hours. They could offer an environmentally safe alternative to insecticides.
Other uses for the cornstarch-base emulsions include killing termites and rot-causing fungi like those that attack stored potatoes or creating films that could make glass or paper water repellant. —J.B.
Newborns love staring at facial features. Less than an hour after birth, research has shown, infants will stare at images that resemble faces longer than they will look at any other pattern. But this preference puzzles scientists because a newborn’s visual systems aren’t fully developed. Infants younger than about 5 months struggle to distinguish between shapes.
Emory Univerisity researchers analyzed MRI brain scans of 30 newborns in a study published March 2 in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The scans showed the two regions of the visual cortex associated with facial recognition and the two networks associated with places fired in sync in the babies’ brains, mimicking the neurological patterns of adults. The results suggest that infants are wired from the womb to recognize faces and places, rather than acquiring the ability over time. “We’re investigating a fundamental question of where knowledge comes from by homing in on nature versus nurture,” said Daniel Dilks, senior author of the study. —J.B.