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Monday, June 6, 2011

Carl Zimmer: Not All Viruses Are Bad

Posted on Mon, Jun 6, 2011 at 1:25 PM

Viruses are wily. They're omnipresent, and they move quickly. In 1918, for example, a deadly strain of the human influenza virus was spread throughout the globe, partly by soldiers traveling to and from the battlefields of World War I. Much of the ensuing outbreak was downplayed by a news media under tight wartime control from the White House, but researchers believe that as many as 100 million people worldwide died from it. It hit young people especially hard; those who were infected were often dead within 48 hours. In a certain way, viruses control the world. Science writer Carl Zimmer, who appears Tuesday night at Fort Mason's Cowell Theater, knows this.

But he also knows that not all viruses are bad. They had a lot to do with the creation of the first life forms on Earth, and they've played a big part in our evolution. According to Zimmer's most recent book, A Planet of Viruses, the human genome has more DNA that comes from viruses than from human genes. Much of this microbial world is hidden — viruses are like a subspecies that travels at unthinkably high speeds, leaving slow-moving behemoths such as mammals as an afterthought. Scientists are uncovering new viruses essentially everywhere they look, so the field is changing rapidly. Tonight Zimmer talks about ways that we humans can use viruses for the powers of good, but also how viruses will continue to shape our destiny as a species.

Zimmer appears at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 7, at the Cowell Theater at Fort Mason.

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