Aired: February 15, 2019

The Human Ecosystem

A tick on a blade of grass. Image credit: psychmike. Licensed by CC by 2.0.

  • Meat Allergies from Ticks (15 min.)

    With: Thomas Platts-Mills (University of Virginia)

    Fifteen years ago, if you walked into the doctor’s office complaining of a new meat allergy, the doctor might not have taken you seriously. These days, due in large part to the work of Thomas Platts-Mills, we know the sudden meat allergy is real and it’s caused by tick bites. His latest research shows a link between the allergy and heart disease.

    Segment:
  • Bioengineering the Future (13 min.)

    With: Jesse Kirkpatrick (George Mason University)

    CRISPR gene-editing technology might inspire fears of bioengineering superhumans, but realistically it can do a lot more with non-human animals. Philosopher Jesse Kirkpatrick says he’s less worried about human gene editing and more interested in how CRISPR technology can be used to enhance—or harm—the environment around us.

    Segment:
  • The Fish That Causes Dread in Japan (12 min.)

    With: Jennifer Martin  (Thomas Nelson Community College)

    In Japanese folklore, when a brightly colored fish resembling a dragon washes up on shore, its arrival is a harbinger of earthquakes and tsunamis. Jennifer Martin is an oceanographer and has studied both the natural and cultural history of this species called the oarfish.

    Segment:
  • Bulletproof Spider Silk (12 min.)

    With: Hannes Schniepp (William and Mary)

    The beautiful, colorful silk we wear is made out of silk that comes from worms. What if we could make similar fabric from spider silk? Hannes Schniepp studies poisonous brown recluse spiders to learn how their incredibly strong silk is made and how humans might try to replicate it.

    Segment:

The Human Ecosystem. (Download the full transcript in PDF format here.)

Sarah McConnell: In 2007, Dr. Thomas Platts-Mills started looking into a mysterious allergic reaction patients were having to a new cancer drug. The strange thing? These allergies were clustered geographically. One of his lab technicians starting comparing a map of the allergic reactions to other medical maps.

T. Platts-Mills: And the map that matched it much the best was the map of Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Then we started asking all the patients questions about ticks, which I’d never done before. Was never interested in tick bites. That was an infectious disease problem.

Sarah McConnell: From Virginia Humanities, this is With Good Reason. I’m Sarah McConnell. In today’s episode, a tick-borne allergy to meat.

Sarah McConnell: Later in the show, CRISPR gene editing technology could allow us to bioengineer our way out of problems like tick-borne diseases. But what kinds of new problems might we create along the way?

J. Kirkpatrick: So there could be consequences to the ecosystem. We just don’t know what the consequences are. And until we get that sorted out, it’s really risky business to go and push ahead.

Sarah McConnell: But first, since uncovering the tick-born meat allergy, Thomas Platts-Mills has continued to look into how it works. He’s chief of the University of Virginia’s Division of Allergy and Clinic Immunology.

Sarah McConnell: Thomas, you have been an allergic for decades now. Do you remember the first time someone came to you presenting with symptoms that you now know probably were meat allergies?

T. Platts-Mills: I don’t think I can remember the first time. But I do remember one of the patients, we’ll call her Ruby, Ruby said clearly that if I eat pork, four hours later I get hives. And so we smiled sweetly and said, “You avoid that pork. It’s not good for you,” thinking that the story didn’t make any sense. I know now that there were at least four or five others who I had seen at some time where they told me the story pretty clearly, but I didn’t understand it.

Sarah McConnell: And unlike Ruby, most of them didn’t realize it was associated with having eaten meat hours earlier.

T. Platts-Mills: Some of them did. Patients would come in and say, “It’s beef or pork or lamb, but it’s not chicken, and it’s not fish, and it’s not turkey.” That was unusual in food allergy, because patients are often very confused.

Sarah McConnell: This allergy isn’t like peanuts or bee stings. It’s not sudden.

T. Platts-Mills: It’s not sudden at all. And that was another thing that was very hard to get our heads around that someone could eat beef and four hours later having nothing happen in the meanwhile have a severe attack quick started quite fast. Because one of the rules about immediate food allergy is if they’re going to be severe, they usually start fast.

Sarah McConnell: When did you have an aha moment and think, “Oh, my gosh. This is real. People are developing sometimes late in life allergies to meat”?

T. Platts-Mills: In 2007, we were looking into this cancer drug, which caused reactions with hives and a falling blood pressure and people could get very sick. And developing a test which would help us identify those patients, and then we realized that the patients who’d been telling us this story about a reaction four hours after eating red meat had the same antibody. In fact the cardinal case was a gentleman with cancer in Arkansas who died in 20 minutes after the first exposure to the drug. And that was a clue that he must’ve had the antibody before he ever saw the drug. It wasn’t becoming allergic to the drug. He was allergic before he was exposed.

Sarah McConnell: What was the thing in both meat and in this cancer drug that they were reacting to?

T. Platts-Mills: This was a kind of sugar in any mammal. And mammals are everything that has fur and breasts, rabbits, squirrels, beef, pork, lamb. Any of those things carry this sugar and can give rise to reactions.

Sarah McConnell: How did you start to think, “This is a geographical problem, and it has to do with tick spread”?

T. Platts-Mills: Yeah. The first breakthrough for us was my technician in the lab who was very smart. And he was looking at maps to try and see what map matched this. And the map that matched it much the best was the map of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. It turns out that that wasn’t correct, but it was correct that it was a tick-borne illness. Then we started asking all the patients questions about ticks, which I’d never done before. I was never interested in tick bites. That was an infectious disease problem. Suddenly we had an allergy related to tick bites. And that was absolutely baffling when we first saw it. Didn’t believe it.

Sarah McConnell: Had they all been bitten by a tick?

T. Platts-Mills: We assume so. They all come from an area where there are these ticks.

Sarah McConnell: Which ticks are they? Are they the same ones that cause Lyme disease?

T. Platts-Mills: Almost certainly not. The tick we’re dealing with is called the Lone Star tick, because it has a white … The adult female has a white spot on her back, which at one point was thought to look like the state of Texas.

Sarah McConnell: Where are these ticks?

T. Platts-Mills: Primarily breeding on deer. And that’s our primary hypothesis about why it’s increased is the massive increase in deer population on the East Coast. And I think very few people understand that in 1950 there were virtually no deer all the way down in the Piedmont. None in the county round Chapel Hill where I met a local hunter who remembered the first date in the 70s when a deer was shot that had grown locally. So that from 1950 to today they’ve expanded enormously and in addition we now have them round our houses, so that at least half the patients we see have received tick bites from their own property.

Sarah McConnell: But I thought most of those so-called deer ticks were the ones that caught Lyme disease, they weren’t the lone star tick.

T. Platts-Mills: Yeah, it’s just wrong terminology. The so-called deer tick is actually primarily breeds on mice and is not really a deer tick.

Sarah McConnell: You were bitten by a tick in 2007 on a hike along the Appalachian Trail.

T. Platts-Mills: Part of it was on the Appalachian Trail. I was off trial most of the time. And presumably somewhere during that five hour hike, I went through a nest of larvae and got 200 on me. But you don’t feel them until you stop. And when you stop, you realize, “Oh, my god. My feet are itching, covered with these tiny little black things.” And you can’t actually see they’re a tick without glasses or a magnifying glass. They’re very small. Some had bitten in and some were still crawling. I’d scraped them off. Went back home, scraped the rest off with a knife. Hundreds. And luckily my wife was away because that night odd larvae were turning up all over me and you take them off with scotch tape and then we took them to the lab and they were actually identified as lone star larvae.

Sarah McConnell: Did you say to yourself, “Oh, no. I’m going to get the meat allergy”?

T. Platts-Mills: Well, actually, I said, “Woo! We’ve got a great opportunity to take my blood once a week and watch what happens to my antibodies.” And they went up and up and up. And in November following the August bites, I got my first attack.

Sarah McConnell: Where were you?

T. Platts-Mills: I was in London and I had a lovely dinner. We ate lamb chops and fine French wine. And six hours later, I was covered in hives itching like crazy. Not anaphylactic, not feeling sick, just feeling stupid.

Sarah McConnell: Would you say that your reaction was mild compared to what some people experience?

T. Platts-Mills: Mine was definitely mild compared to some people. I actually went to visit the house of a patient in [Sutton 00:09:21] Nelson County in Virginia who had dropped his blood pressure to 40 and actually went blind during an anaphylactic attack and was lucky to get into hospital and was on adrenaline all night and recovered completely.

Sarah McConnell: What’s the solution? What is the cure when someone presents with a meat allergy, horrible allergic reaction?

T. Platts-Mills: Very few. Gasping for breath, covered in hives, blood pressure down, clearly dangerous, bad abdominal pain because if you go into the emergency room with abdominal pain, and you’re asked, “When did you last eat?” And you say, “Six hours ago.” No one thinks of allergy. You’ve got to say itching or hives for allergy to come up. And that’s been a problem with a lot of patients. If you get diagnosed, the correct treatment is to avoid mammalian meat. One of the shingles vaccines had too much gelatin in it which carried this sugar because it comes from a mammal and the new vaccine has very little.

Sarah McConnell: Do you give people an antidote to the itching and hives?

T. Platts-Mills: Very important. All the patients that have this should carry Benadryl for sure because they should take Benadryl immediately. Many of them have to carry an EpiPen.

Sarah McConnell: Where in the US are we finding people presenting with this allergy to meat who’ve been bitten by ticks? Is it just East Coast?

T. Platts-Mills: No, it goes a long way into the Midwest. We’re very interested in an area called Three Corners, which is eastern Oklahoma, northwestern Arkansas, and southern Missouri. And that is a real hotspot. All the clinics there have seen cases and many of them have seen a hundred.

Sarah McConnell: What are some other hot spots?

T. Platts-Mills: Lynchburg. Lynchburg, Virginia is a real hot spot. Warrington has tons of cases. And Warrington is lovely because some of the cases are people who own a horse farm and have to clear the ride for the hunt. And others who go hunting every day.

Sarah McConnell: So hunters are really at risk?

T. Platts-Mills: Hunters are definitely at risk. There are cases in New Jersey and a few in Maryland. Very few in West Virginia. Plenty in Kentucky. And a big bunch on the top end of Long Island in the Hamptons. And there are plenty of ticks. There are plenty of deer. Plenty of wooded … If you fly up Long Island and you watch, half way up it’s houses and after that it’s all trees. And in the trees there are deer. And so the ticks are there.

Sarah McConnell: How far north?

T. Platts-Mills: Cape Cod, very few. Boston area a few. Into the New England proper a few. But nothing comparable to what we see down here. We have a lot of lone star ticks and lots of larvae so that there are plenty here. And we have an incredible number of deer. So if you ask what we could do, obviously we could decrease the deer population. The alternative is to stop the leash laws because one of the reasons that deer have got really into the suburban areas is because we don’t have a pack of dogs any more. So for the first time in 10,000 years, the human race is running villages without a pack of dogs.

Sarah McConnell: Do you think now all allergists are testing for this as part of the big test that one does for everything that might be causing allergies in someone?

T. Platts-Mills: No. The prick test doesn’t work very well for the red meat allergy. And so the primary thing is history and then a blood test. There’s still certainly doctors who are not fully aware of it.

Sarah McConnell: Do you think that this meat allergy caused by the lone star tick is underdiagnosed?

T. Platts-Mills: We know it’s underdiagnosed but one of the main reasons it’s underdiagnosed is because not all patients get hives. Of course there’s a danger that at some subsequent occasion they’ll get a bad attack. And I got a letter from a doctor in Virginia today about a patient who was eating meat regularly and then ate meat and had a very bad attack. And had had a previous attack three years ago. But in between was not having attacks. And those patients are really difficult to deal with because persuading them to stop eating red meat if they only get occasional attacks is hard.

Sarah McConnell: Thomas Platts-Mills, thank you for sharing your insights on this on With Good Reason.

T. Platts-Mills: My pleasure.

Sarah McConnell: Thomas Platts-Mills is chief of the Division of Allergy and Clinical Immunology at the University of Virginia Health System.

Sarah McConnell: Coming up next. Does stopping the spread of tick-born disease begin in the lab? As genetic engineering technology like CRISPR advances, it’s more and more important to ask tough questions about when to use it. How do we balance the reward of eradicating malaria with the risk of throwing off an entire region’s ecosystem? Jesse Kirkpatrick is assistant director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at George Mason University. He studies gene editing technology. And he says we don’t need to be afraid of what it can do, but we should be careful.

Sarah McConnell: Jesse, before we get into the tough ethical questions raised by gene editing, give me a quick primer on CRISPR. What it is, how it’s used.

J. Kirkpatrick: Sure. So in 2012 scientists discovered that there’s this obscure bacterial defense mechanism called CRISPR which has a clunky name. It’s a Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, which is a mouthful. So basically what CRISPR does it’s– it’s thought of I think as a pair of molecular scissors. It allows scientists to edit the DNA of an organism. And you think of the scissors coming in and cutting a piece of DNA, right? And they allow scientists to insert, delete, or modify elements of that gene. These really, really precise edits in ways that are now faster, cheaper, and easier than ever before.

Sarah McConnell: So what is this concept of gene drive have to do with CRISPR?

J. Kirkpatrick: Yeah, so a gene drive allows scientists to use CRISPR to basically push a desired modification through a gene. Think of it like this. Most of us get a 50% of getting our mother’s or our father’s DNA. Right? So think of eye color for example. What gene drive allows scientists to do is basically ensure that almost 100% of future generations of offspring are going to have that desired trait.

Sarah McConnell: So what are some of the positive ways that we might want to use this CRISPR for gene drive purposes to eradicate things that seem like no-brainers?

J. Kirkpatrick: One of the most promising lines of research is using gene drive to eradicate malaria. There are a number of ways that scientists could go about it. So one is that what scientists could do is they could edit the gene of a mosquito that conferred sterility to males. And subsequent generations would inherit this. Right? Not all of them. But eventually if the drive worked successfully, 100% of those subsequent generations of mosquitoes would be born sterile, therefore crashing the population and making them unable to breed.

Sarah McConnell: So how could this be controversial? This seems like such a good idea. Either making a certain population of malaria carrying mosquitoes sterile or making them resistant.

J. Kirkpatrick: So as a basic proposition it seems as if it would be a no-brainer and that we want to be eradicating malaria. The problem is is that gene drives are very aggressive in the sense that they spread in a way that could be considered sometimes invasive, meaning that we’re not sure about what the consequences will be. So there could be consequences to the ecosystem. There could be consequences to other animals that feed on these mosquitoes. We just don’t know what the consequences are. And until we get that sorted out, it’s really risky business to go and push ahead.

Sarah McConnell: But CRISPR is so easy. It’s hard to imagine that scientists aren’t using CRISPR to edit genes and experiment in various ways.

J. Kirkpatrick: Well, they certainly are. Lots and lots of really excellent research going on in the lab. The real kind of rub comes when we think about when we move these organisms out of the lab into field trials and into the wild population. That’s where it really starts to get tricky and potentially worrisome.

Sarah McConnell: And are there any gene drive field trials going on?

J. Kirkpatrick: There are not.

Sarah McConnell: And what are we doing at a global level to police it?

J. Kirkpatrick: I’ll give you one example. There’s a convention under the auspices of the United Nations called the Convention on Biological Diversity. What the convention is supposed to do is just simply ensure that state parties are conserving and protecting the environment and biodiversity. So there was a big meeting a couple of months ago. It was I think in November, right of last year. And there was a coalition of actors that wanted to draw a red line and put forward a proposal to have a moratorium on field trials of gene drives. So there’s certainly a robust debate surrounding the concern with this technology. I should add that the proposal was eventually rejected. And primarily the rationale for scientists was, they said, “We’re not going to be able to know the risks unless we be able to run trials with this.”

Sarah McConnell: Right. And we won’t see what happens until we do.

J. Kirkpatrick: Well, and that’s right. And I don’t want to dismiss urgent caution and insuring that the process for which this technology is developed and put into play is a way that engages broad communities of people who are going to be affected. So people that live on the ground that live in these places in which these field trials may occur, they need to have a voice in this process.

Sarah McConnell: Well, so give me some other examples of what seem like no-brainers to us as far as doing gene editing to solve a intractable problem that seems like a good idea but maybe we shouldn’t.

J. Kirkpatrick: So New Zealand is sort of thought of— is what might be a kind of good test case for this, being that it’s an island and it’s relatively remote, right? And they also have a very aggressive, invasive species, right? Rodents, weasels, and so on, and so forth. And they want to do something to eradicate these invasive species. The way that eradication occurs now is pretty painful and terrible for these animals and it’s generally poisoning. Reducing animal suffering while safeguarding the flora and fauna of New Zealand is certainly desirable.

J. Kirkpatrick: The problem being is that using a certain type of gene drive has the capacity to spread beyond the local population. So we could imagine that scientists in New Zealand go ahead and they use gene drive to eradicate a particular species of rodents. And it’s believed to be that these are going to be contained. It’s also possible though that a ship comes in and one of these rodents becomes a stowaway and goes to another island or goes mainland. And that this gene drive now spreads throughout a population of species that’s beyond those that were intended to be affected. And that could have really serious outcomes. And it also raises fundamental questions about the role and the voice that people should have in using science and technology in their lives.

Sarah McConnell: You mentioned earlier Lyme disease. Could we use the same technique though on people to make us immune rather than annual shots against the flu to make us immune to any number of health threats that we face otherwise?

J. Kirkpatrick: It’s really unlikely. Again it’s certainly theoretically possible that scientists could insert a gene drive into a human being. What’s less likely is that it’s going to be affective, right? Because remember that the goal of the gene drive is to be passed on to future generations through this kind of super Mendelian genetics, right? A way that almost ensures that 100% of future offspring are going to inherent this and that’s really unlikely with humans because our reproductive time is so short. So humans really aren’t a good candidate for this technology.

Sarah McConnell: What is the worst fear we might imagine if we allowed the unbridled use of this technology for nefarious purposes?

J. Kirkpatrick: For me one of the most concerning things is not the kind of worst case scenario that we can attach ourselves to. It’s the ones that might be sneaking under the carpet to which we’re not paying attention. We could imagine that scientists are taking all protective measures, safeguarding their research, really dotting their eyes and crossing their t’s and making sure their lap is safe, doing everything ethically. Let’s say and this is the era of fake news. We could imagine that Russia or China or another country started an information campaign … And actually what these scientists were doing was unethical or what they were doing was unsafe or that this mosquito gets out of the lab and it’s been weaponized, right? Whatever it is, whatever false narrative that wants to be let out of Pandora’s box.

J. Kirkpatrick: And my concern is that with something like that, what we’re going to find is people are going to latch onto this misinformation as we’ve seen with anti-vaccination campaigns. We’ve seen this with opposition to genetically modified organisms and food and so on and so forth. And my concern would be that this false narrative getting out there would really, really turn public sentiment against the science in a way that could very well halt it or set it back.

J. Kirkpatrick: And if that were to happen, there’s concern about … Most of the people who are dying of malaria for example are those who are living in Africa, poor, often children, and it could really set back what would be a boon for human health and wellbeing. This is such a powerful technology that transparency is key. Right? Science communication is paramount and engagement with the public is imperative.

Sarah McConnell: How quickly do you think this is all changing?

J. Kirkpatrick: The pace of progress, and this is just astounding … So I started a study on this two years ago, and it required daily vigilance to keep up with the scientific developments. A few years ago the National Academies of both China and the US had a human genome editing summit to discuss things like editing human embryos. A few years later it had been done. That’s really remarkable and astounding. The issue here is the science is outpacing the slow pace of governance and regulation.

Sarah McConnell: What do you recommend from the study that you recently included?

J. Kirkpatrick: Well, one obvious area is that any labs that are engaging in this type of activity have to follow the guidelines that are set out by the National Institute of Health, the NIH. Right? So research entities, universities, and others that are receiving NIH funding, they’re required to follow certain biosafety protocols, certain ethical requirements, security requirements, and so on and so forth. That’s not the case for those research institutions that aren’t receiving federal funds. So one, I think, piece of low-hanging fruit is to make NIH regulations applicable to anyone that’s conducting this research, irrespective of them being public or private.

J. Kirkpatrick: The other is that I’m worried about genome editing being used in ways that we’ve seen with unregulated stem cell therapies. The potential for CRISPR charlatans, right? These people that are making dubious health claims, potentially fleecing people of money, or worse yet, engaging in unregulated practices that are supposed to be quote unquote therapeutic that could have really serious negative health outcomes for people.

J. Kirkpatrick: And so we had seen this with stem cell clinics that are largely unregulated in the US where people have been blinded as a result of these kind of shady doctors operating out of strip malls. So the Federal Trade Commission could increase scrutiny for those that are marketing this line of sort of off labeled use of CRISPR. And these people that are getting put at risk, these are people that have chronic knee pain or back pain. They’re desperate. But they need relief and they need help. And what they’re getting basically is therapies that aren’t therapies.

Sarah McConnell: Did you also make recommendations that were late to biosecurity broadly or the defense of the nation?

J. Kirkpatrick: Yeah, one of the primary concerns is that there’s a possibility that CRISPR could be used, or genome editing in general, could be used for nefarious purposes. So an example would be to increase transmissability or the virulence of a virus, making it nastier and worse and making people more susceptible to it. There’s a whole range in this study of areas of concern that we’ve outlined, while also trying to really drive home that we ought not lose sight of the really, really important benefits that this technology can yield.

Sarah McConnell: Well, Jesse Kirkpatrick, thank you for sharing your insights on With Good Reason.

J. Kirkpatrick: My pleasure. Thank you.

Sarah McConnell: Jesse Kirkpatrick is a professor of philosophy and assistant director for the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at George Mason University. This is With Good Reason. We’ll be right back.

Sarah McConnell: Welcome back to With Good Reason. From Virginia Humanities, I’m Sarah McConnell.

Sarah McConnell: In Japan when a long, slender, brightly colored fish resembling a dragon washes up on shore, it causes some alarm. Some people there believe the fish’s arrival foreshadows earthquakes and tsunamis. Jennifer Martin is an oceanographer and professor of biology at Thomas Nelson Community College. She studies the deep water fish and why it might be washing up on beaches.

Sarah McConnell: Jennifer, fears of a natural disaster in Japan were swirling online after some deep water fish believed to be harbingers of earthquakes and tsunamis washed up on shore. What were those fish?

Jennifer Martin: Those fishes were oarfish. They’re usually deep sea fishes. They’re not typically found in shore, but they are known to strand either beach themselves or get caught in costal nets.

Sarah McConnell: What do they look like?

Jennifer Martin: They are extremely large, very slender ribbon-like fish that are bright silver and have some blue. But they have these amazing crimson fins. And on their dorsal fin, they’re extremely long. It’s like a beautiful red mane.

Sarah McConnell: How long can they be?

Jennifer Martin: Just those dorsal fins can be a meter or two long. But the fish itself has been documented at 15 meters. Most likely they’re about 10 meters or so max.

Sarah McConnell: And a stranding typically is dozens?

Jennifer Martin: Not all at once. Within a year period, a lot is 15. So before the 2011 earthquake and tsunami there were about 20 documented stranding throughout Japan.

Sarah McConnell: And the 2011 tsunami was the horrible one that killed 10s of thousands?

Jennifer Martin: Yes. It did. It was awful. I mean there’s just no other way to say that. But yeah, they hadn’t had that many oarfish wash up in Japan in quite a long time.

Sarah McConnell: So they pay attention to oarfish stranding? It’s not one beach. It’s over an entire coastline but people take note when one washes up?

Jennifer Martin: Absolutely. The Japanese name for the oarfish translates roughly to messenger from the sea dragon or dea god’s palace. So they associate that, such a deep water fish, coming onto the beach as a sign of the sea dragon, if you will Japanese folklore, essentially being mad and punishing by having an earthquake or a tsunami come along.

Sarah McConnell: Who in Japan has seen this as a harbinger of tsunamis or earthquakes?

Jennifer Martin: I was in Japan about six weeks before that tsunami hit. And I was there researching the group of fish, the order of fishes that the oarfish belongs in. And I had been at a museum in Tokyo. And I was getting ready to leave to fly north to another museum in the northern island of Hokkaido when a museum curator had called and said, “Hey, Jennifer just left our museum about a week ago. But unbelievably we have an oarfish and it’s still alive.” So I quickly canceled my flight, jumped on a bullet train and went about four hours south so that I could see this oarfish. And never in my wildest dreams would I ever imagine I’d have the chance to work on a fresh specimen that had not yet been preserved. So whatever I needed to do to get to that fish I was willing to do.

Jennifer Martin: So I got to the museum about an hour after the fish had died. They moved it from the port and it was laying in the basement of the museum. And this one was about eight or nine feet long. So kind of a baby, if you will. But I was so excited. So I spent all night long. I had a marathon dissection of this fish. But what was really interesting to me, and this is when I realized like for the older generation of Japanese that are still really in-tune with the folklore, that this was really important to them. Because they had a lot of janitorial staff that wouldn’t even come anywhere near the basement of the museum because they heard there was an oarfish there. And they did not want to be associated with that bad luck.

Jennifer Martin: And then earthquake ideas and tsunami ideas started flying around.

Sarah McConnell: So let’s say not long after the 20 washed up that year there was a tremendous earthquake and tsunami.

Jennifer Martin: There was. The one that I was dissecting about six weeks later. That one was actually caught in a fisherman’s net. But they’re in shore, so not in deep water. And that was the last one that I’m aware of that had become stranded in Japan before the tsunami hit.

Sarah McConnell: Remind us of that tsunami. What happened and where it struck?

Jennifer Martin: So most people associate that with hearing about the Fukushima disaster at the power plant that got hit. But there were I think 20,000 people that lost their lives or are still missing as a result of the tsunami that came afterwards.

Sarah McConnell: That must have been so especially horrifying to you because you had come to know so many people there and spent so much time in Japan.

Jennifer Martin: I had. And being so recent, it felt very personal. I was actually giving a talk about the oarfish at a scientific meeting the morning I found out about that and quickly changed a few slides at the end of my talk. But my first concern was, “Let me contact the scientist I’d just been working with for two months and make sure everyone was okay.” And thankfully everyone I knew was, but there were a lot of people that were not. And it still felt very personal.

Sarah McConnell: Is there any scientific basis as far as we know for oarfish stranding on beaches being harbingers of tsunamis and earthquakes?

Jennifer Martin: No. Scientifically we don’t have support for that. Most theories relate it to climate change. So whether we’re having an El Nino or a La Nina Year and there’s temperature changes so that maybe they move in shore a little bit more. Some other ideas is that they’re coming towards the surface to reproduce, and they get caught in a current. And because they’re so long, they’re very long and people refer to them as snake-like, but they don’t swim like snakes or eels at all. They actually orient in the water column with their head up and their tail down. They ungulate their dorsal fin, this bright red crimson fin in a wave-like motion mainly to move up and down.

Sarah McConnell: And how deep do they customarily stay in the ocean?

Jennifer Martin: We think between about 200 to a thousand meters. But I think that’s a gross overestimate, I would guess.

Sarah McConnell: What do you mean?

Jennifer Martin: Well, we assume because of their coloration and their very large eyes, and we don’t see many of them, they’re rare, that they’re deep water fishes. But there have been with technology now, we have ROVs and there’s cameras on oil platforms deep underwater and on buoy lines. And we actually see them in 80 feet of water alive and healthy and moving so not sick or stranded or in any way. So technology’s really giving us much more insight on their natural history and their behavior and distribution.

Sarah McConnell: I read another possible scientific explanation, and it was more like a theory, that maybe there’s subtle changes in the earth’s crust at the bottom of the sea ahead of an actual earth quake. And that might cause the current to stir and then push the oarfish at the bottom up to the surface. What do you think of that?

Jennifer Martin: That’s certainly possible. The oarfish are deep water fish, but not bottom dwelling fish. So they’re up in the water column versus being on the bottom of the ocean. So it could very easily move them if they get trapped in a current that’s strong. They’re at the will of the current. They’re not great swimmers.

Sarah McConnell: Why do we especially associate them with Japan?

Jennifer Martin: That seems to be where the overwhelming majority of them show up on both sides of the island in the Pacific ocean and the Japan sea. There’s a lot there. More so than most other places in the world. It’s interesting. We had a few oarfish strand off the coast of southern California a few years ago and we didn’t have an earthquake there. In 2017 there was an earthquake that hit the Philippines, and within 30 days of that earthquake I think five specimens had washed up in southern Mindanao. There’s statistically we cannot say they’re directly predicting earthquakes. But the truth is we don’t know. It’s certainly an interesting idea that with more data we could explore.

Sarah McConnell: I’ve read the oarfish is considered beautiful in some of these legends.

Jennifer Martin: Absolutely beautiful. Like I said it’s bright silver, has got crimson red fins. I mean just the most beautiful vibrant red you could imagine when these things are alive. And the idea about the oarfish and the sea dragon came from an old Japanese folklore called Urashima Taro. It’s about a fisherman who finds a turtle that’s being tortured by some young boys. And he wants to save the turtle. And the turtle rewards him by taking him to the sea dragon’s palace, which is at the bottom of the ocean. It’s folklore, so there’s lots of regional variations. And the gist of the story is that the sea dragon has a daughter, the princess, who falls in love with the fisherman. And she takes the form of this oarfish, this beautiful fish, and travels to land. Travels to Japan in that form so that she could be with the fisherman. Some variations have the princess as the oarfish. And some it’s just the oarfish is a messenger from the sea dragon that’s at the bottom of the ocean.

Sarah McConnell: Are there children’s books about this?

Jennifer Martin: There are. There have been a few that have been translated to English as well. But it is a fairytale I tell as a bedtime story to my own children sometimes.

Sarah McConnell: Do they love it?

Jennifer Martin: My son does. My daughter’s a little too young. But my son asks lots of amazing questions about, “Well, how did that happen?” And, “How can that turn into an oarfish?” Salvador Dali actually painted a … He did a series on Japanese fairytales. In one he titled, “Urashima Taro.” And I believe it’s his depiction of the princess almost as an oarfish because she has this beautiful red hair that’s very much like the dorsal fin of these oarfishes. We also believe that those fish are sort of the source of what we think were sea serpent sightings by early sailors.

Sarah McConnell: Really?

Jennifer Martin: Yeah. If you look at some of the old maps in which they draw these amazing sea creatures on them, many of them are bright red. And they’re very similar to what adult oarfish look like. And when they have that fiery red mane at the surface and it comes up out above the surface of the water six feet or so, that’s really impressive.

Sarah McConnell: Well, Jennifer Martin, this is wonderful. Thank you for talking with me on With Good Reason.

Jennifer Martin: Thank you so much.

Sarah McConnell: Jennifer Martin teachers biology at Thomas Nelson Community College. In 2018, she was named an outstanding professor by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.

Sarah McConnell: Coming up next itsy, bitsy spider silk.

Sarah McConnell: The soft colorful silk many of us wear is made from silk producing worms. But what if we could make a similar fabric from spider silk? Hannes Schniepp is a professor of Applied Science at William and Mary. He studies poisonous brown recluse spiders to learn how their incredibly strong silk is made and how humans might try to replicate it.

Sarah McConnell: Hannes, what is it like working with spiders every day, poisonous brown recluse spiders?

Hannes Schniepp: Yeah. For me it’s just exciting to work on this project and to have spiders in my lab and feed them. That’s just a lot of fun.

Sarah McConnell: How do you feed them?

Hannes Schniepp: We give them crickets. Larger ones get crickets. When they’re smaller, we just give them fruit flies.

Sarah McConnell: And where do you get the brown recluse spiders? Do you go into the field and pick them up one by one?

Hannes Schniepp: Well, they’re not native to Virginia, so we get them from a gentleman in California who first actually sent them to us by mail. But then we figured out that a lot of them actually didn’t make it through the mail. So he actually ended up coming to a conference. He just brought a few of these little critters in his carryon luggage.

Sarah McConnell: No, he did not.

Hannes Schniepp: He did. So it was almost like in a spy movie. We had a little exchange at the airport and I went onto the lab with the spiders. And then a lot of research started.

Sarah McConnell: Now do you create your own?

Hannes Schniepp: Yes. So we now sustain probably what is one of the few colonies of recluse spiders in the world in our lab, so I would say we have right now 50 to 70 animals.

Sarah McConnell: How strong is spider silk? And is the brown recluse spider silk stronger than the others?

Hannes Schniepp: So by weight spider silk is about five times as strong as steel. And the brown recluse spider is not the strongest of all silks that we know. But it’s right up there. So it has a very typical numbers for any really good spider silk.

Sarah McConnell: Someone has made a dress out of spider silk.

Hannes Schniepp: Yes, that’s quite fascinating. People had to collect the silk from about five million spiders just to make one dress that a person could wear.

Sarah McConnell: And did somebody actually wear that spider dress?

Hannes Schniepp: Well, a model wore it and they took a lot of beautiful pictures, but it’s now shown in a museum.

Sarah McConnell: Have you ever thought about making something fun out of some of the spider web material you get in the lab?

Hannes Schniepp: Sure. I mean because we play around with spider silk every day. We try to build some little things. But the thing is always that spiders only make tiny amounts of silk. So what we have are only tiny things.

Sarah McConnell: You actually harvest the silk from the spiders. You somehow without getting bitten turn the little spiders on their backs.

Hannes Schniepp: That’s correct. So we keep them in little plastic vials and then we just let them out. Then we expose them to carbon dioxide, which just makes them numb for a few seconds. So they fall asleep for about half a minute. So then we flip them on their back and just carefully hold them down on some styrofoam. And once they’re fixed there, then we can start pulling the silk and milking them for a while. And then we can reel that silk and collect as much as we need to do our experiments.

Sarah McConnell: How did you discover that the brown recluse has a different spider silk than other spiders?

Hannes Schniepp: Yeah. I got this hint from a collaborator of mine, Fritz Vollrath, who is a professor at University of Oxford in the Department of Zoology. And he has worked with spiders for decades. He is pretty much the guy when it comes to spider silk.

Sarah McConnell: And what is different about the brown recluse silk from other spiders?

Hannes Schniepp: Silks from other spiders in most cases they’re round like a cable or like a hair. And the brown recluse spider as far as we know from over 45,000 known spider species, it’s the only one that makes a silk that’s not round, but it’s a flat tape. It really makes it unique. For instance, it’s very sticky because it’s so flat. So all matter is actually sticky if you come close enough to it. If you have something rough and stick it to a wall, it would just fall down. But if you make it in a way that it can conform to the wall and actually make many contact points, it’ll be sticky. I mean another way to make something sticky is just to make it soft. Right? So if you take a piece of play dough, you can stick it to the wall and it just sticks there because of that. But the trick is to get something that’s hard and really stiff and still make it sticky. And the way that the recluse spider solved this problem is just by making it very thin.

Sarah McConnell: What sort of web does the recluse spider spin?

Hannes Schniepp: It makes a web that looks pretty messy from far away. It just walks over the ground and it puts out all the silk all over the place. But we looked closely at that silk first with a magnifying glass and then with microscope. And we found actually that it’s not a random mess, but it’s carefully made small loops that the silk produces while it works around and lays out its web on the ground. And what we found out is that the spider has a little spinneret that’s almost like a little sewing machine that’s at the end of the abdomen of the spider where the silk comes out into these carefully made loops that are almost perfectly the same size. The spider has to make these very fast so it makes about 15 of these loops per second and then just as it works around it lays all these loop silk. It’s almost like barbed wire so that it lays it out so that other animals can get stuck so that the spider can eat them.

Sarah McConnell: You made two discoveries. One with a magnifying glass. There’s these phenomenal loops that are made by this one spider. And the other thing was using a much more powerful microscope you discovered that it was flat like tape or fettuccine.

Hannes Schniepp: Yes. When we looked very closely with an atomic force microscope, we saw that there’s this nanostructure in the spider silk that was very exciting. So it almost looked like a piece of textile that had all these fibers that are running parallel to make this ribbon.

Sarah McConnell: About how many fibers for the one ribbon?

Hannes Schniepp: It’s about 2,500.

Sarah McConnell: Where’d you publish your information?

Hannes Schniepp: Well, this article came out about three months ago in the journal that’s called ACS Macro Letters. It’s the world’s most highly respected polymer journal where people publish things about plastics and spider silk is an example essentially of a biological or a natural polymer, a natural plastic.

Sarah McConnell: So what are you thinking the applications could be? What does this suggest to you in terms of discovering a new material?

Hannes Schniepp: I think this will really help us a lot to understand better why spider silk has these amazing properties. And once we figure that out, then we really can think about the next step how to synthetically make materials that have similarly exciting properties.

Sarah McConnell: Do we already anywhere make synthetic spider silk?

Hannes Schniepp: This is actually starting right now. There are few startup companies that are trying to do this at a larger scale. The interesting thing about spider silk it’s really 100% protein. So all these exciting properties that spider silk has they come from a material that you can essentially eat. And the trick is now how to mass produce this protein. And right now the most promising approach is to use genetically altered bacteria that have a piece of the DNA that looks like the DNA from the spider in their DNA so that they can actually make the protein that looks like the silk protein. And then you can mass produce it, collect it, and then you can start thinking about making materials out of it.

Hannes Schniepp: So there’s this startup company. They have now made synthetic fibers. And they actually made ties out of synthetically made spider silk.

Sarah McConnell: Have you seen one?

Hannes Schniepp: I have not seen one. So they only sold a small number of them. One of my students applied for the lottery to get one, but we did not end up getting one.

Sarah McConnell: But there’s a difference between making the protein that spiders use for their webs and making something synthetically that mimics what the brown recluse does, which is it emits this flat tape-like web which is very unique and could have special properties.

Hannes Schniepp: Yes. So what we are excited about in this tape is that it is so sticky. So we’re thinking about making maybe a new generation of adhesive materials. One way I look at this is that if we can really mass produce a material like spider silk, there are great opportunities. It is a material that has better properties than pretty much every plastic that we can make synthetically. At the same time, it’s really a material that’s made by spiders in a totally sustainable and benign way. So if you think about all the plastic that’s now drifting around in the ocean and that will stick there for a very long time and create all kinds of problems, if we can make our plastics out of biological matter or maybe even produce it using organisms, it will be much more sustainable way to actually use materials.

Hannes Schniepp: And once you have that protein, you can make all kinds of things out of it, right? So you can make a fiber, that would maybe replace Kevlar which is the material that we’re currently using in bulletproof vests or helmets or in your car tires. But then we can also think about other application. For instance in biomedicine, right? Because if it’s a biological biogenic material, we can actually put it in an organism without having to expect a lot of adverse effects.

Sarah McConnell: Why do you think that you and your graduate student were the first to notice the loops in the brown recluse spider web and to see that the tape that is emitted from the spider is actually made of these thousands of other fibrils?

Hannes Schniepp: I think the loops we only discovered because we were the first to look. And this actually would have been very simple to find out. So all it would have taken is getting a $5 magnifying glass. You could have spotted these loops. But nobody really bothered to look for it. For the other discovery, this nanofibrils in the ribbon, we needed a very expensive atomic force microscope that costs several hundred thousand and they’re not a lot of these around and not a lot of people who really know how to get the best images out of them. And using this kind of hardware, we were then able to reveal this beautiful nanostructure in the ribbon.

Sarah McConnell: It’s so interesting. I feel like we’re at an inflection point when it comes to plastics and the environment. And I love hearing you say that you and others are really looking for ways we can use other materials.

Hannes Schniepp: Yes, so the idea that it’s naturally produced without consuming petroleum, without using any toxic chemical plants, without producing toxic waste. To me that’s totally fascinating. Right? So these little spiders that we have in our lab, we feed them a cricket once a week. And that’s actually more than they need to eat. And just from this one cricket they produce all this wonder material, which is in many respects better than anything that we can make synthetic. So I think there’s a lot for us to learn from nature to come up with much better and more sophisticated materials for the future.

Sarah McConnell: Hannes Schniepp is a professor of applied science at William and Mary.

Sarah McConnell: Major support for With Good Reason is provided by the law firm of McGuireWoods. With Good Reason is produced in Charlottesville by Virginia Humanities. Our production team is Allison Quantz, Elliot Majerczyk, Kelley Libby, Cass Adair, and Alison Byrne. Jeannie Palin handles listener services. Additional music in this episode is from Blue Dot Sessions. For the podcast go to withgoodreasonradio.org. I’m Sarah McConnell. Thanks for listening.

Discussion

2 Comments on “The Human Ecosystem”

  1. G H Arlen Post author

    In the bullets above, the headlines and body text for #3 and #4 (oarfish and spiders) are reversed. So they link to the wrong story. Good stories, by the way!

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