On ants and infection.

On ants and infection.

I live in a college town. Last week, students returned.

Yesterday’s paper explains that dire punishment awaits the students who attended a Wednesday night party. In bold letters atop the front page, “IU plans to suspend students over party.

In the decade that I’ve lived here, many parties have led to sexual assaults, racist hate speech, and violence. The offending students were rarely punished. But this party was egregious because “there were about 100 people there.

IU officials “have seen a photothat shows a large group of young people standing close together outside a house at night, many of them not wearing masks.

I’ve seen the images – someone filmed a video while driving by. There they are – a group of young people, standing outside.

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Science magazine recently interviewed biologist Dana Hawley about social distancing in the animal kingdom.

When spiny lobsters are sick, their urine smells different. Healthy lobsters will flee the shared den. Leaving is dangerous, since the lobsters will be exposed to predators until they find a new home, but staying would be dangerous, too – they might get sick. To survive, lobsters have to balance all the risks they face.

My favorite example of social distancing in the animal kingdom wasn’t discussed. When an ant is infected with the cordyceps fungus, it becomes a sleeper agent. Jennifer Lu writes in National Geographic that “as in zombie lore, there’s an incubation period where infected ants appear perfectly normal and go about their business undetected by the rest of the colony.

Then the fungus spreads through the ants body, secreting mind control chemicals. Eventually, the fungus will command the infected ant to climb to a high place. A fruiting body bursts from the ant’s head and rains spores over the colony.

Infection is almost always lethal.

If an ant notices that a colony member has been infected, the healthy ant will carry the infected ant away from the colony and hurl it from a cliff.

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The FDA will approve any Covid-19 vaccine that cuts risk by half. It’s very unlikely that a Covid-19 vaccine will cut the risk by more than about two-thirds, and the vaccine will work least well for people who need protection most.

Most likely, the Covid-19 epidemic will end before there’s vaccine. The herd immunity threshold seems to be much lower than some researchers feared – our current data suggest that the epidemic will end after about 40% of the population has immunity.

The herd immunity threshold isn’t an inherent property of a virus – it depends upon our environment and behaviors. In prisons, we’ve seen Covid-19 spread until nearly 90% of people were infected. In parts of New York City where many essential workers live in crowded housing, Covid-19 spread until 50% of people were infected.

In a culture where everyone kissed a sacred statue in the center of town each morning, the herd immunity threshold would be higher. If people wear masks while interacting with strangers, the herd immunity threshold will be lower.

In a world that maintains a reservoir of the virus, though, someone who hasn’t yet been exposed will always be at risk.

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The New York Times recently discussed some of the challenges that colleges face when trying to reopen during the epidemic.

Most schools ban socializing outside “social pods” – the small groups of students that some colleges are assigning students to, usually based on their dorms.

Most administrators seem to believe that a rule banning sex is unrealistic, and are quietly hoping that students will use common sense and refrain from, say, having it with people outside their pod.

In 2012, The Huffington Post published a list of the “Top 10 sex tips for college freshmen.” Their fourth piece of advice (#1 and #2 were condoms, #3 was not having sex while drunk) is to avoid having sex with people who live too close to you. “Students in other dorms = fair game. Students in same dorm = proceed with caution.

I had a big group of friends for my first two years of college. After a breakup, I lost most of those friends.

This is crummy, but it would be much worse if I’d lost my friendships with the only people whom the administrators allowed me to spend time with.

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We can slow the spread of Covid-19, but slowing the spread won’t prevent deaths, not unless we can stave off infection until there is a highly effective vaccine. That might take years. We might never have a highly effective vaccine – our influenza vaccines range in efficacy from about 20% to 80%, and we have much more experience making these.

Our only way to reduce the eventual number of deaths is to shift the demographics of exposure. If we reach the herd immunity threshold without many vulnerable people being exposed, we’ll save lives.

A college would best protect vulnerable students and faculty by allowing the students who are going to socialize to host dense parties for a few weeks before mingling with others. This would allow the virus to spread and be cleared before there was a risk of transferring infections to vulnerable people.

I’d draft a waiver. Are you planning to socialize this semester? If so, come do it now! By doing so, you will increase your risk of contracting Covid-19. This is a serious disease – it’s possible for young, healthy people to die from it. But, look, if you’re gonna socialize eventually, please just get it over with so that you don’t endanger other people.

With this plan, some young people might die of Covid-19. But some young people will die of Covid-19 even if everyone practices social distancing – slowing the spread of infections doesn’t save lives, it delays deaths. And fewer young people would die of Covid-19 than die of influenza each year.

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When confronting cordyceps, which is almost always fatal, ants throw sick colony members off cliffs.

When ants confront less lethal fungal infections, they protect the colony by shifting the demographics of exposure and by ramping up to the herd immunity threshold as quickly as possible.

Malagocka et al. discuss demographics in their review article, “Social immunity behavior among ants infected by specialist and generalist fungi.”

Outside-nest foragers, who have the highest risks of acquiring pathogens from the environment, have limited access to the brood area with the most valuable groups, and are recruited from older individuals, who are less valuable from the colony survival perspective.

Konrad et al. discuss intentional exposure in their research article, “Social transfer of pathogenic fungus promotes active immunization in ant colonies.”

When worker ants encounter an infected colony member, they intentionally inoculate themselves. “Social immunization leads to faster elimination of the disease and lower death rates.

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It feels disquieting for me to defend the behavior of frat guys. Personally, I’d like to see the whole fraternity system abolished. And in March, when we knew less about Covid-19, I was appalled that people went out partying over spring break. But I was wrong. Perhaps inadvertently, those young people were behaving in the way that would save most lives.

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Erika Meitner’s 2006 poem “Pediatric Eschatology” begins

the nurse called back and told us to use bleach
on anything we touch, she said wash everything
in hot water
, insisted we won’t treat you if
you’re asymptomatic, we won’t
, and made us
an appointment anyway. so we waited and waited
with the dog-eared magazines and recall posters

It’s horrible to face the end. It’s almost worse to know that the things you fear are harmless to others. All the asymptomatic cases are like a slap in the face to those whose friends and family have died.

Braun et al. recently published a study in Nature showing that a large number of people who’ve never encountered Covid-19 may already have significant immunity. Parts of the Covid-19 virus are similar to the viruses that cause common colds, and exposure to those viruses might provide the immunity that lets people recover without ever feeling sick.

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I believe we should be doing more to protect young people. Gun control, ending farm subsidies, fighting climate change. Enacting privacy laws to reign in the surveillance capitalists. Breaking up monopolies. Providing good careers despite automation. Making sure that everyone has clean air to breathe and clean water to drink. Getting nutritious food into our nation’s many food deserts. Providing equitable access to health care.

But, punishing young people for socializing?

We’re not making them safer. And we’re not making ourselves safer, either.

Seriously, I know we humans are selfish, but we have to be able to handle an epidemic better than ants.

Red ant: photograph by William Cho

On the study of naked mole-rats.

On the study of naked mole-rats.

This is a riff on an essay from several years ago.

In 1974, evolutionary biologist Richard Alexander gave a lecture describing the conditions that might spawn eusocial vertebrates. 

Alexander was a bug guy – “eusocial” refers to extremely cooperative animals like bees, ants, and termites. Individuals sacrifice themselves for others.  Non-breeders help with childcare.  The colony seems more intelligent than its members.

Alexander proposed that a eusocial mammal could evolve if the animals were small compared to their food sources, and if they lived in underground burrows that could be expanded easily and defended by a small percentage of the colony.

After the lecture, an audience member mentioned that this “hypothetical eusocial mammal” sounded a lot like the naked mole-rat.  Alexander was introduced to Jennifer Jarvis, who had studied individual naked mole-rats but not their social lives.  Alexander and Jarvis collaborated to write The Biology of the Naked Mole-Rat.

Eliot Weinberger condensed this 500-page textbook into his 3-page essay, “Naked Mole-Rats.”

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Like us, naked mole-rats are both good and bad.  They are cooperative.  They are affectionate.  They are always touching.  When they meet strangers, they fight to the death.  When a breeding female dies, many other females regain fertility and the colony erupts into civil war.

Weinberger wrote that naked mole-rats “are continually cruel in small ways.”  But they are outdone by naked apes. 

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For a research paper published in 2008, Thomas Park and colleagues found that being pinched by tweezers causes naked mole-rats pain, but injection with caustic acid does not.

“We tested naked mole-rats in standard behavioral models of acute pain including tests for mechanical, thermal, and chemical pain.  We found that after noxious pinch or heat, the mole-rats responded similarly to mice.”

“In contrast to the results using mechanical and thermal stimuli, there was a striking difference in responses to strong chemical irritants.  Two chemicals were used – capsaicin from hot peppers and hydrochloric acid – which normally evoke very intense pain in humans and other animals.  Injection of either rapidly evoked intense licking and guarding behaviors in mice.”

“In contrast, naked mole-rats showed virtually no response.”

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Perhaps you worry that acid-resistant naked mole-rats could conquer the world.  Fear not.  A form of kryptonite exists.  Injection of an 11-amino-acid signaling peptide allows acid to hurt naked mole-rats just as much as it hurts mice.  Or us.

Half a dozen animals were subjected to each treatment.

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Naked mole-rats don’t die from cancer. 

They should.  Their cells, like ours, are copied from copies of copies.  Errors compound.

Some errors are particularly deadly.  Our cells are supposed to stop growing when they touch.  They are supposed to commit suicide when old.  But the instructions telling a cell when and how to kill itself can be lost, just like any other information.

This is cancer.

In cancer, a single cell proliferates at the expense of others.  A cancer cell claims more than its fair share of space.  It commandeers nutrients.  This cell, and its progeny, and its progeny’s progeny, will flourish. 

Then the scaffolding creature dies.  Then the cancer cells die, too. 

But every cell that isn’t an egg or sperm is terminal anyway.  In the colony of our body, most cells are non-breeding members.  From a cancer cell’s perspective, it has nothing to lose.

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We develop cancer often.  With each passing day, we produce about 100 billion new cells.  Each time we produce a new cell, all 3 billion letters of our genome must be copied. 

The enzymes that copy our genome make one mistake every billion letters.  Each cell division: three new mutations.  Each day: three hundred billion new mutations.

Some mutants are trouble. 

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Our bodies kill cancer.  Your immune system – the same mess of mucous, inflammation, and goo that goes haywire during the flu – seeks and destroys renegade cells.  Your body is a fascist enterprise; white blood cells, its militarized police.

Chemotherapy does not kill cancer.  Chemotherapy means flooding the body with poisons that stop all cells from reproducing.  With luck, if the spread of cancer is slowed, your immune system can kill it before it kills you.

In naked mole-rats, cancers always grow as slowly as if the rodents were receiving chemo, allowing their immune systems to squelch cancers at a leisurely pace.  Their cancers are slowed by a heavy sugar called “hyaluronan,” which is packed so tightly into the space between cells that there is no room to grow.

In 2013, biologist Xiao Tian and colleagues wrote that “naked mole-rats may have evolved a higher concentration of hyaluronan to provide the skin elasticity needed for life in underground tunnels.  This trait may have then been co-opted to provide cancer resistance and longevity.”

They became impervious to cancer almost by mistake.

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The record lifespan for a naked mole-rat in captivity is 28 years, 4 months.  The record-holder was nicknamed James Bond.  He was senior consort to his queen and continued rutting – and siring pups – up until the day he died.

Bond was dissected.  His cells showed extensive oxidative damage in their lipids, proteins, and DNA.  Bond should have been hobbled by age.  But time did not slow him down.

Science writer David Stipp described him as “a little buck-toothed burrower who ages like a demigod.”

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Humans typically cease breeding long before we die.  From an evolutionary perspective, as soon as we stop having children, our fitness drops to zero.

And yet, we have long lifespans.  The dominant theory is an offshoot of “the grandmother hypothesis” – because we often care for grandchildren, there may have been evolutionary pressure to maintain good health until our grandchildren also reach reproductive age. 

With twenty-year generations, there’d be an incentive to survive until our sixties.

After that, perhaps our ancestors were no longer helpful.  And so we’ve inherited a propensity to decay.  Expensive medical interventions can preserve us longer, but once we pass our natural lifespans, brains and bodies weaken.

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When scientists starve animals in the lab, it’s called “caloric restriction.”  This protocol extends lifespan in a wide variety of species.  Monkeys, mice, flies, and worms.  Ten-fold increases in lifespan have been observed.

Caloric restriction should extend the lives of humans, too.

There are unpleasant side effects.  Caloric-restricted mice spend their time staring at empty food bowls.  They are listless: barely moving, barely sleeping.  They live longer, but worse – and if they are fed slightly less, they die of malnutrition.

Frequent starvation in the wild may have caused naked mole-rats to evolve their prodigious longevity.

Naked mole-rats expand their colonies outward, searching for edible roots.  When they find a good root, they gnaw it carefully, attempting to keep the plant alive as long as possible.  But a colony of naked mole-rats eats faster than any plant can grow.  When the plant dies, the colony plunges into famine. 

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Most eusocial animals carefully ventilate their homes.  Termites build giant pylons in the desert.  Although temperatures outside careen from 35 degrees at night to over 100 during the day, the interior of the mound remains a constant 87 degrees.  And the termites do not asphyxiate.  Their exhalations are swept away by circulating air.

Naked mole-rats burrow with less care.  They sleep in piles, hundreds of bodies lumped together underground.  Those near the center soon run out of oxygen.

We would die.

Most animals, deprived of oxygen, can’t fuel their brains.  Thoughts are expensive.  Even at rest, our brains demand a constant influx of energy or else the neurons “depolarize” – we fall apart.

Since the death penalty was reintroduced in the United States in 1976, we have killed eleven prisoners in gas chambers.  During the 1983 execution of Jimmy Lee Gray in Mississippi, officials cleared the observation room after eight minutes.  Gray was still alive, gasping for breath.  His attorney said, “Jimmy Lee Gray died banging his head against a steel pole in the gas chamber while reporters counted his moans.”

Gas chambers are pumped full of cyanide gas, carbon monoxide, or carbon dioxide.  Carbon dioxide is cheapest. 

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With each breath, we inhale oxygen, burn sugar, and exhale carbon dioxide.  When we drive, our cars intake oxygen, burn gasoline, and exhaust carbon dioxide. 

In small amounts, carbon dioxide is beneficial.  Carbon dioxide allows plants to grow.  But when you put too much inside a chamber, somebody dies.  Put too much in the air worldwide and we all die.

The planet Venus was habitable, once.  Humans could have lived there.  Venus had a deep ocean and mild weather.

Through some fluke, Venus experienced a temporary bump in the amount of carbon dioxide in the air.  Carbon dioxide traps heat, which caused water to evaporate.  Clouds formed, which trapped more heat.  The cycle continued. 

Venus is now a fiery inferno.  The ground is bare rock.  Sulfuric acid rains from the sky.

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Lab mice die in gas chambers.  Sometimes one mouse is set inside the plexiglass box; sometimes several mice inside a Chinese-food takeout container are gassed together.  A valve for carbon dioxide is opened; the mice lose consciousness; they shit; they die.

A naked mole-rat would live.  Unless a very determined researcher left the gas flowing for half an hour.  Or so found Thomas Park and colleagues – the same team that discovered that naked mole-rats dislike being pinched.  As they reported in 2017:

Human brains drink sugar.  We are like hummingbirds that way.  And our brains are very fussy eaters.  We are fueled exclusively by glucose.

Naked mole-rats are less particular.  Their minds slurp fructose to keep from dying.

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Naked mole-rats are the most cooperative of mammals.  They are resistant to cancer.  Unperturbed by acid.  They age with the libidinous gracelessness of Hugh Hefner. 

They are able to withstand the horrors of a gas chamber.

And yet, for all these talents, naked mole-rats are easily tormented by human scientists.

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Featured image from Wikimedia Commons.

On smuggling.

On smuggling.

While I was working in a research laboratory at Stanford, my advisor mentioned that she was waiting for a package from ________.

“Oh, we got something from him,” said our technician John, “but it was just an Invitrogen catalog.  Their rep brought us a newer copy last week, so I threw it out.”

“What!” my advisor shouted, causing him to jump.  “Which trash can?!” 

She and John rooted through the garbage together.  Luckily the package had arrived that day.  The now-gooey catalog (I was smashing a lot of cow brains in those days, and the bleached muck went into the trash) was still there.

We didn’t need another Invitrogen catalog.  But it’s illegal to ship DNA through the mail, so researchers often smuggle it by dotting some onto paper then circling the spot.  When you receive DNA this way, you cut out the circle, dip it in water, and then add bacteria.

The bacteria make more copies of your DNA.  Antibiotics kill off any bacteria that aren’t helping.  And the U.S. post office is none the wiser.

Then you can throw out the useless catalog.


I’ve been volunteering with the Midwest Pages to Prisoners project for about a decade.  We ship books to people who would be otherwise deprived.  Occasionally, though, administrators at a prison will instruct their mailroom staff to return all our packages.  Or, worse, quietly pitch them into the trash.  Months might pass before people inside let us know that our books aren’t getting in.

Usually, the administrators will relent and let us send books again, but it might take a few years of phone calls.  During one such frustrating episode, I wrote a poem.

Sympathy for the Devil

I am a writer as in a vulture, plucking words from

others’ pain. & sing penance, but never loud enough:

we feast upon this world of hurt we’ve made.

Words might salve even the poor, so we send free

books to inmates. At one prison, packages never

arrived. We called & were told we impregnated

literature with suboxone. We lacked both will &

way: we have no budget; drugged pages wilt &

yellow; no one would read. Later I heard the state

was shunting sex criminals there. Books were

a privilege, underhandedly revoked.

                                                               Gangs rule

inside: Aryan Brotherhood for whites, Gangland

Disciples for black men. We are free to believe in

post-racial America: in prison, meals might mean

a stack of trays sloughed inside a then-locked door.

Some men take two. Others will go hungry. The

ache of want sends us seeking for what symbols

of solidarity we find, hoping for allies against the

world.

             AB oft allies with the guards. Members reap

cushy jobs, access to visitors, untrammelled mail.

At the prison binning our books, gang & guards

were very close, COs inked in crosses, runic letters,

shields & shamrocks. Yet AB, there, was weak. So

they were fed sex criminals – easy, friendless kills.

A guard outs the doomed man’s past – everyone

lies, asked why he’s doing time – and members

murder him in the shower.  They look tougher

than they are.

                         A dozen deaths. No indictments.

Activists began to smuggle phones, hoping to

document abuse. That’s when our packages ceased

to be received.

                           I’ve no deep love for these men –

friends of mine were abused.  But if those who molest

should be punished by death, let’s force judge & juries

to say it. Not read a shadow sentence of 10 or 20 years.

We should say what we mean:

I sentence you to a cruel and unusual death.  It will

come suddenly in a shower stall, faux-Odinist skin-

head slamming your head against the tile until your

bruised brain ruptures from repeated trauma.  Your

eyes will loosen from their sockets, your skull will

crack, blood will whelm through your nostrils.  In a

final indignity, bowels relax.  You will know the brief

hell of hoping to live when you cannot.  Your limp

body will drop while the water runs, cascading over

your corpse.  Although news of your death will not

reach those who sentenced you, they will know that

justice has been done.


Quite likely, drugs were being smuggled into that prison.  I’ve been told that it’s easier to buy drugs in prison than out on the street.  Which is rough – people who are recovering from addiction often relapse after being sent to prison.  In those bleak environs, there aren’t a lot of other ways to occupy your time.

The drugs weren’t coming from Pages to Prisoners, though.  We always embalm our packages in tape so that correctional officers can’t tamper with them (as easily) on their way in.  And, seriously, our organization doesn’t have the budget for drugs – we’re shipping donated books wrapped in old grocery bags!  I’ve never tried to buy opiates, but I assume they’re expensive.  Guys in jail sometimes mention how many thousands they were spending on their habits each week, which helps explain why they’re broke.

I understand why prison administrators worry, though.  Scientists use books to smuggle DNA; you could illicitly ship a variety of drugs that way.

Although our organization ships books to people incarcerated in twelve different states, local prisons are the only ones that ban us.  Which is sad.  From a community perspective, we’d like to help people locally.  We can recruit volunteers by mentioning that the people inside will be coming back to our community.

From a health and safety perspective, though, prison administrators would prefer that books come from out of state.  Then they can feel more confident that packages are being sent by people who’ve never met the inmates. 

The recipients would be like my colleague John, evaluating each book based solely on its title: an Invitrogen catalog?  We don’t need that! 

Or, after receiving one of the packages sent by Pages to Prisoners recently: sweet, advanced Dungeons & Dragons!

Prison administrators have good reason to keep drugs out.  People’s tolerance wanes during their time in jail – somebody might take too much and die.  Whereas they’re unlikely to OD on D&D.

 Of course, prisons don’t have to be so bleak & punitive, let alone violent & PTSD-inducing.  Prisons like we have in the U.S. don’t need to exist at all.  And then organizations like Pages to Prisoners wouldn’t need to send books.