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zombie caterpillars and the flu vaccine

January 18, 2013

National Geographic: “Viruses That Make Zombies and Vaccines” by Carl Zimmer:

zombie carl zimmer

unlike traditional flu vaccines, the new kind, called Flublok, is produced by the cells of insects.

The standard way to make flu vaccines dates back to the Eisenhower administration. Scientists inject flu viruses into chicken eggs.

[Baculoviruses] produce a protein that interferes with a caterpillar’s biology, apparently making it ravenous. Normally, caterpillars will rest at the base of plants. Infected caterpillars roam day and night, feeding their inner parasites.

It’s fairly straightforward to engineer the genes of a baculovirus, swapping a gene from another species into its genome. Scientists figured out how to swap foreign genes for the polyhedrin gene, so that when the baculovirus infected insect cells, it made balls made out of the foreign protein instead. Evolution, in other words, had produce a remarkably efficient protein factory.

Concluding:

It’s hard enough to believe that a virus can make a catepillar its zombie. It’s harder still to believe that this zombie-master could potentially save us from diseases.

Consider as comparison, how language and cultural ideas function on humans. Viral memes control our behaviors and potentially save us from disease (wash your hands, don’t touch your face, wash your hands again). The media marketing of flu shots is based on fear about zombie pandemics and it surely helps sell flu shots. And now the drug itself is made by an animal (albeit an insect) turned a literal part of the factory machine.

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From → Academics

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