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‘Microbial communities are like human societies’

In his new book, Pranay Lal explains the microbial world, the sheer diversity and complexity of viruses—and why they are a part of us

Smallpox epidemics created so much fear that the disease became embedded in cultural beliefs across civilisations. In north India, the chief smallpox deity is Sitala ‘mata’ (right); and the princesses of Mysore state became ‘vaccination ambassadors’ to prevent smallpox, as shown in this 1805 portrait
Smallpox epidemics created so much fear that the disease became embedded in cultural beliefs across civilisations. In north India, the chief smallpox deity is Sitala ‘mata’ (right); and the princesses of Mysore state became ‘vaccination ambassadors’ to prevent smallpox, as shown in this 1805 portrait (Photographs from 'Invisible Empire'/Penguin)

For close to two years, we have been talking about “living with a virus”, describing it as an “invisible killer”, a “destructive force”, a “silent decimator”, and other similarly alarming phrases. In reality, quite a few viruses live naturally within us—they are responsible for gut health; they have played a role in our evolution, they are even the cause of the beautiful colouring of flowers we marvel at. In Invisible Empire: The Natural History Of Viruses—a book that ultimately reminds us of our shared histories, not just with one another but with all species—biochemist and public health expert Pranay Lal explains that not all viruses are harmful, and that some are, quite literally, encoded in our DNA.  

Our bodies have 30% more microbes than cells, yet we know so little about viruses. “A virus is a strange and unloved entity of the natural world,” he says, and quotes Nobel laureate Peter Medawar, who described it as “a piece of nucleic acid surrounded by bad news”. Smaller and simpler than bacteria, viruses by themselves are inert and harmless. Once they meet a suitable host, however, they spring into action and multiply, using the genetic apparatus of a living cell. They reproduce at breakneck speed and burst out in search of more cells to invade—that’s the kind of virus we are familiar with, the ones that lead to flus, diarrhoea or covid-19.

Lal writes about these viruses as well as those that transformed economies—such as the one that caused smallpox and changed the world map—and our own species. The placenta, which connects the mother and foetus, for instance, evolved largely because one endogenous retrovirus (ERV) entered an early ancestor of mammals centuries ago. There isn’t just one story of the virus, and that’s what makes them so interesting to Lal.

Also Read: Scientists have discovered new climate-friendly microbes

Drawing inferences from diverse fields—from geology and biology to art and pop culture—Lal explains that we may never know enough about the microbial world because of the sheer diversity of viruses and the complexity of their interrelationships. Edited excerpts from an interview with Lounge:

How did you get interested in viruses?

I am deeply influenced by all small things in life. Indeed, they are things upon which all large creatures depend. Viruses are invisible, yet a strong and potent force that influence every tissue, organ and creature, and therefore can trigger proliferation or collapse of species, ecosystems and empires rapidly. My interest in the microbial world grew from the stories that my father told me about infectious disease and its agents. My father was an ophthalmologist who spearheaded the elimination of trachoma, a deadly eye disease in India and Africa, until the early 1980s. His work has had a tremendous influence on how I see the world.

You emphasise that we may never know enough about the microbial world. By telling the history of viruses, were you trying to reinforce the relationship between environment and public health, ourselves and nature?

We currently know less than a very tiny fraction of all living microbes, and even less about viruses. Each year we discover new viruses that live within us, and there are thousands of undiscovered species of viruses in a single litre of sewage, pond or ocean water. Our technological progress, our ability to gain instant gratification, has lulled us into believing that we know enough and possess sufficient power to subdue and manipulate nature. We choose which relationships with life forms we want to foster and which we will cull and sever, and try to make nature serve us selectively and indefinitely. This foolhardiness makes us feel we can control nature, but as we have been slow to realise, this control is delusional.

There are no easy fixes but what every country has realised (during the pandemic) is that their education, research and policy framework are inadequate when we get overwhelmed. Global cooperation, too, was tested. The failure of countries and global community is not singular to any agency, but our collective failure. Unfortunately, the lessons from covid-19 are quickly being erased and businesses and governments want to return to a “new” normal. We must remember covid-19 as a stark reminder of our vulnerabilities. Like disasters from the past, like Bhopal (the gas leak tragedy in 1984), covid-19 should not just be another annus horribilis but a pivotal moment of revival of science.

Invisible Empire—The Natural History Of Viruses: By Pranay Lal, Penguin Random House India, 278 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>799.
Invisible Empire—The Natural History Of Viruses: By Pranay Lal, Penguin Random House India, 278 pages, 799.

A more critical point to remember is that microorganisms, or any small life form, are not “bugs”, or critters, or germs. Nothing is a “bug” when seen in its role in nature and evolution. These minuscule organisms that share our bodies are not random stowaways or hitch-hikers. Some of them are critically important to our lives. We have been looking at ourselves, our existence, our biology, through a keyhole, and from our perspective alone. This needs to change urgently.

So, we have an “empire of viruses” yet such little information on them. Does this say anything about how research funding comes easier to species we can see, the more charismatic ones?

Absolutely. We suffer from species-bias. Creatures that are closer to us, those which enthral us with their beauty or provide economic and assumed ecologic benefits, are protected. There are no funds or nature reserves for small creatures, there is no “insectopia” (other than a sanctuary in Mexico which conserves the Monarch butterfly) or “fungarium”, yet these are crucial to supporting the scaffold of ecosystems.

The same is perhaps true when we study the microbial world. Only those microbes which have a direct bearing on human and some livestock and crop pathogens have been a priority for research. This too must change. A global catalogue of dominant microbes in every ecosystem must begin and we must understand their role in keeping a balance.

There’s a lot of art in the book connecting viruses to daily life—from still life by Dutch masters to the cover of a Beatles album, to a poem by Robert Frost—as well as much sly humour. You seem to have had some fun, too, while writing this very serious book.

I think natural history touches different societies and evokes different emotions and responses. I like to relate to natural history with places that readers may have been to or cultural practices they observe. To make my writing more accessible, I try finding aspects that are more relatable, but also make complex science and research-in-progress more comprehensible for my readers. I like to draw inferences from diverse fields, from the etymology of scientific names to their role in evolution or shaping ecosystems.

Did the approach you took to your first book ‘Indica: A Deep Natural History Of The Indian Subcontinent’, where research meets an entertaining tale, help with the writing of ‘Invisible Empire’?

I guess it did. But I think the idea of the book emerged just as covid-19 began to spread. What also became obvious was the deep animosity towards viruses or, really, anything microbial, especially among my public health colleagues. While I understood that their hostility was justified, I also knew that the virus-human story is not so black and white. Since my graduate student days, I have understood that microbial communities are like human societies—ecological conditions can keep them at peace or turn them against one another, or against other organisms. However, no amount of my convincing them about how essential microbes as a whole are, or how viruses can be beneficial, could persuade my otherwise scientific and rational colleagues. Trying to reason with friends and family, too, drew their ire and castigation. How could I be so insensitive, they asked.... I went back to my copious notes and pieced together a narrative about the natural history of viruses. This book is a result of that.

We shouldn’t really try to eradicate all viruses. Would it be an exaggeration to say that?

All life depends on microbes and viruses. Microbes are not only engines of evolution but they also digest, produce, process, ferment, break down, recycle, reformulate and synthesise chemicals faster and more efficiently than any human-made machine. Viruses are a part of us. We cannot eliminate them without making ourselves extinct. We must begin to abandon our unending campaigns and eradication programmes that deploy toxic technologies to control diseases. We need sanity on how we use antibiotics, synthetic chemicals and disinfectants, and we need to stop “over-medicalising” our lives…. We have only just begun to understand and harness the goodness and versatility of viruses and microbes to advance chronic disease management, cancer control and immunotherapy. There is so much more we can do if only we understood them better…. Life sciences are part of the solution to the twin challenge of being better prepared for future pandemics and mitigating climate shocks.

Also Read: Can a face mask really neutralize the covid-19 virus?

    26.11.2021 | 07:00 AM IST

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