From: Don Martin
To: All May-26-94 20:47:26
Subject: Ask Mr. Science
I came across an editorial in Science magazine today and thought
that a few here might find it amusing. It is an interview of one Dr.
Noitall by Science Magazine. Enjoy:
The Case for Diversity
Science. Dr. Noitall, you are one of the great authorities on
biodiversity, the heroic defender of endangered species, the man who
came to the aid of the spotted owl, fought seafaring nations to save
the baleen whale, protected the little snail darter, and stood
bravely in the path of meteors to try to save the dinosaurs.
Noitall. A vast understatement of my true worth.
Science. What is the situation in the world today with regard to
species extinction? We hear old species are dying and new species
are not being formed.
Noitall. The situation is desperate. Humans are callously eating
lions and tigers (in- stead of the good old vice versa), killing
elephants and rhinoceri for their tusks, destroying butterflies with
pesticides, windshields, and pavements-and acting as if only Homo
sapiens deserves to live on the earth.
Science. And what species are you trying to save now?
Noitall. I am becoming the defender of the unpopular little
species who have a poor media image-the Mycobacterium tuberculosis,
the Salmonella typhi, the pneumococci, the syphilis spirochete, the
AIDS virus, and the malaria parasite, to name a few.
Science. But those are horrible pathogens that are out to kill
humans. Why should you want to be on their side?
Noitall. That is typical "speciesism," as despicable as racism.
We biodiversity people do not limit ourselves to lovable species;
all God's creatures deserve to live. To us, a bacterium wagging its
flagella is like a dog wagging its tail.
Science. How can humans relate to bacteria and viruses that are
basically stupid, without a cerebral cortex and devoid of higher
Noitall. Stupidity is in the eye of the beholder. Bacteria
survive by swimming toward nutrients that are good for them and away
from toxic substances that are bad for them--a simple strategy that
Homo sapiens could learn to advantage. Bacteria exchange DNA rapidly
to pass drug resistance genes from one bacterium to another, a
bacterial Marshall Plan. One DNA transfer provides more information
than a modern high school education.
Science. Well, most people are delighted the smallpox virus is
extinct, and we'd like to do the same for the AIDS virus. Do you
really think you're generating any new species?
Noitall. In the past 20 years the agents that cause AIDS, Lyme
disease, Legionnaires' disease, multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis,
and cryptosporidiosis have emerged as important new organisms. The
tigers and elephants were no match for Homo sapiens, but bacteria
are made of tougher DNA and I am encouraged by the response we're
Science. But no one likes salmonella or the yellow fever virus,
so who can possibly be on your side?
Noitall. We have tremendous help in all branches of the
government. There have been big de facto cuts in research budgets.
Weakened humans lie in hospital beds where they serve as perfect
incubators for new drug-resistant strains. Threats of price controls
on drug companies have caused them to fire scientists and cut
research budgets. Undisciplined use of antibiotics in prescriptions
and for livestock growth is a great help; schools and day care
centers are also helping us generate new bacterial and viral
Science. But is bacterial diversity really increasing?
Noitall. I only have figures for 1992, but in that year alone
the United States spent $4.5 billion in direct costs correcting
hospital-acquired infection and $4 billion in costs against
drug-resistant infection. In a few years it's going to be more
dangerous to go to the hospital than to stay at home.
Science. But won't you get a backlash from people who are afraid
of these infections?
Noitall. What naivety! The people are scared to death of one
part of lead per billion in the drinking water, any chemical that
contains chlorine, and radiation that's less than that experienced
by the city of Denver. They haven't time to worry about the bus
rider who's coughing drug-resistant tuberculosis germs, or the deer
that carries Lyme disease, or the decreases in research and
surveillance workers to cope with the new threats.
Science. So, from your point of view, biodiversity, as seen in
bacteria and viruses, is proceeding well.
Noitall. Swimmingly, I'd say. It will also solve the
SCIENCE * VOL. 264 o 29 APRIL 1994