Debunking myths on genetics and DNA

Friday, May 30, 2014

Viruses, Parasites and Microbiology: Professor Vincent Racaniello talks about the inspiration behind his weekly podcasts

If you've been following the blog for a while, you know I'm a big fan of viruses. No, I don't enjoy viral diseases, rather, what fascinates me is the capability of these little machines to transfer genetic material. Throughout evolution this has provided amazing opportunities: the placenta, which expresses retroviral proteins, is an example. Today, we can exploit viruses' ability to transfer genetic material using them as vectors for vaccines and gene therapy.

So, as a a virus fan girl myself, I'm very excited to be hosting here at the blog today Professor Vincent Racaniello, from Columbia University, who has been studying and teaching about viruses his entire life. His research focuses on picornaviruses and the poliovirus, and his passion is to tell people how cool viruses are. Professor Racaniello is the author of the Virology Blog, which he started in 2004. Joining forces with colleagues Dickson Despommier, Alan Dove, Rich Condit, Kathy Spindler, Michael Schmidt, Elio Schaechter, and Michele Swanson, he is the creator of the podcasts This Week in Virology, This Week in Parasitism, and This Week in Microbiology.

Thanks for being here on CHIMERAS today, Professor Racaniello!

EEG: Thanks to tools like Blogger, Wordpress and social networks, the Internet has given a voice to scientists: now we can be in charge of communicating our work, instead of relying on media that often overlook scientific rigor and go for "sensational" instead. To the best of my knowledge, though, you were the first to exploit this by starting The Virology blog which, if I'm not mistaken, is turning 10 years old this year, correct? Congratulations, that is a mile stone! What prompted you to start a blog about viruses? Did you ever think, "Nobody cares about viruses"?

VR: I doubt I'm the first science blog, but I am proud of going strong for 10 years. I do remember exactly why I started blogging. We had just written the third edition of our virology textbook, Principles of Virology (ASM Press) and I thought, I have all this knowledge in my head, why not share it? My contract allowed me to use images from the book so I thought a blog would be a great way to spread information about viruses. I really wanted to teach people all about what viruses are, how they work, how they cause disease, and I knew our textbook would only reach students. Blogging had by then become very easy so I started Virology Blog. I didn't know if anyone would read it. My first post was 'Are viruses living'? Amazingly, the blog was discovered and people started commenting! To this day the question of whether or not viruses are living is one of the most popular search terms that gets readers to the blog.

I never thought that people would not care about viruses - ten years ago they had firmly implanted in the minds of many people, with AIDS, emerging infections like Lassa and ebola, and of course influenza. I knew I could captivate with stories about viruses. The only question was whether anyone would find the site. I tried to help by linking often to other sites, and of course by using social media to help promote the site.

EEG: Your well-thought and carefully explained virology and microbiology podcasts reach out to students, educators and science fans in a way that's rigorous and yet understandable. You've really revolutionized science communication by setting an example to other scientists and teachers. Back when you started, did you ever imagine that the blog would branch out into This Week in Virology, and then This Week in Microbiology and This Week in Parasitism? How many followers do you currently reach?

VR: When I started blogging I thought that would be as far as I would go. But I started listening to podcasts during my long commute, and one day I heard Leo Laporte of say 'If you are passionate about something, you can podcast about it'. I knew I was passionate about viruses. So I thought it would be cool to do a podcast about viruses - no one was doing it - and in a tip of the hat to Leo, I named it after his flagship podcast, This Week in Tech. Like Virology Blog, I thought no one would listen. But the podcast has grown incredibly for a long, detailed science show. We've had nearly 3 million total downloads since the beginning, anywhere from 40,000 to 90,000 each month, and growing. Best of all, we have incredible audience engagement - I get 3-4 emails a day with questions about viruses, and we try to answer all of them on the show.

I had started TWiV with Dickson Despommier and soon brought on other hosts. After it was clear that there was a real audience for good science podcasts, I started This Week in Parasitism with Dickson, who had been a parasitologist throughout his career. That one also took off, and was followed by This Week in Microbiology. This Week in Parasitism has loyal followers but fewer than This Week in Virology, while This Week in Microbiology is gaining steadily.

Dickson and I also started an unrelated podcast, Urban Agriculture, which follows on his success in promoting vertical farming. I have ideas for more podcasts - I'm planning one on systems biology, and I'd like to find suitable co-hosts for one on fungi, and one on immunology. Anyone out there interested? You'd have to be an expert in these fields and willing to put time into building a great show.

EEG: You've been studying viruses since your PhD thesis: did you get into virology by chance or was it something you always wanted to do? And if the latter, why?

VR: After graduating from college I didn't know what to do. My Dad had wanted me to be a doctor, but I wasn't interested, so I was rudderless in college. I got a job as a lab technician and did a lot of reading. One day I read Fever by John Fuller, an account of the outbreak of Lassa virus in Nigeria. This got me hooked on viruses. I was looking at masters programs in the area when I happened to go to dinner one night at a college friend's house by the name of Ed Kilbourne. His Dad was chair of microbiology at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York. I told him what I wanted to do and he suggested I apply. I got in, and the rest is history: I ended up being Peter Palese's first PhD student, and I worked on influenza viruses in his lab. My career has been mostly unplanned and somewhat accidental, but spontaneity is what has made it a blast.

EEG: What's the most curious thing you've ever encountered about viruses? And what's the greatest satisfaction you've had from these past 10 years dedicated to educating the public on virology and microbiology?

VR: The more I learn about viruses, the curioser and curioser they get (to paraphrase Lewis Carroll). But if I had to pick one curiosity that astounds me to this day, it would be the viruses that parasitoid wasps inject into caterpillars along with wasp eggs. The viruses immunosuppress the caterpillar so that it won't reject the egg, which eventually hatches and devours its first meal. If this isn't amazing enough, the viruses are encoded in the wasp genome!

My greatest satisfaction of the past 10 years of science communication has been to teach so many people whom I would never have been able to reach without the internet. Hearing how they have developed a love for science, and virology in particular; and that some have even decided to go into a career in virology, is simply the without equal. In the early days of my research laboratory, a driving force for me was solve problems that could help human health. Now I feel that the most effective use of my time is to be Earth's virology professor.

EEG: And you certainly set a great example of using the Internet to educate an detach. Thank you for your passion and dedication, Professor Racaniello!

Here's a summary of all the links where to find Prof. Racaniello's blog posts and podcasts:


  1. Fascinating, EE, and Professor Racaniello. I have little experience with bacteria and viruses. My day to day focus is on agricultural application molds. I'm not an expert, just someone who is passionate about what I do, and everyday when I look into the microscope, still half-whisper, "Wow...". I sense that passion in both of you. Isn't the world lucky to have people in it like you two?

    Thank you for the food for thought read. :-)

    It's interesting reading how you came t be where you are.

    1. Teresa, yes, the marvels of the micro-world, isn't it? Thank you for this beautiful comment and my apologies as once again I didn't get the notification of your comment, so sorry for the delay.

  2. Ten years? Wow! That's quite a long time to be blogging. Congrats to him! It's always great to see people who are successful with something they're passionate about, be it viruses or anything else...

  3. Very fascinating. Although I must admit I don't know much about viruses and parasites other than they usually aren't good for you. haha I do think it's neat that they can be used to vaccines though.

    Yen years is amazing! I'm only on my third year of blogging. I hope I can get to ten! ;)

  4. Wasp virus. Totally cool.
    Great interview!


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