Making sense of microbiology

In a discussion on Twitter earlier this week I made an off the cuff remark which turned out to be unexpectedly telling. Discussing online science writing, I said:

We need sense-making, not more coverage.

Later that day I came across this post by Nathalia Holt – The Goldilocks Approach to Vaccines. I was already considering featuring this story in MicrobiologyBytes this week. Now, I feel I don’t need to (as long as you promise to go and read the full story on her blog):

“On Tuesday, Louis Picker began his talk to a packed room at the AIDS Vaccine meeting in Barcelona, Spain with the line, “The trick to making a vaccine is to be humble and accept the fact that viruses are smarter than we are.” He wasn’t referring just to HIV. Instead he was talking about CMV, or cytomegalovirus. CMV is very clever. A member of the herpes virus family, it’s over 200 million years old. This long evolution means that the virus has become adept in surviving within mammals. While the virus is found in roughly 45% of people, it rarely causes disease. Given its benign nature, Picker calls it “a parasite not a pathogen.” With these characteristics, perhaps it’s surprising that no one has attempted to use CMV in vaccines before now. What makes Picker’s approach unique is not how it manipulates HIV. In fact, the parts of HIV used in his vaccine are far from exceptionable. The vaccine uses pieces of an HIV protein called gag, a group of proteins that make up the basic structure of the virus. The gag protein has been a component of many failed vaccine attempts. What makes this vaccine different is not the innards of HIV it contains but instead how these pieces are delivered.”

This is exactly the sort of approach to science writing I had in mind when I mentioned sense-making on Twitter. Nathalia is not an average blogger. She is a talented and very experienced author for who her blog is merely a sideline. I have plenty of academic colleagues who would cringe and quibble at some of the terms Nathalia uses in this post, and the way in which she puts across some of the ideas. In spite of that, this is exactly the sort of approach I was thinking of when I tweeted. And it is exactly what I am trying to do when I write MicrobiologyBytes.

I honour of Nathalia, and all the other great science writers online, you’ll notice that I have changed the tagline at the top of MicrobiologyBytes. No longer does it say “The latest news about microbiology”, although that’s what you’ll get if you follow MicrobiologyBytes on Twitter, Facebook or Google+. The new tagline on the site better reflects what MicrobiologyBytes is about.


Vaccines & Correlates of Immune Protection - AIDS Vaccine 2013

Vaccines & Correlates of Immune Protection – AIDS Vaccine 2013


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One Response to Making sense of microbiology

  1. Ed Rybicki says:

    I have heard Louis Picker, here in Cape Town, speaking on his CMV – and he is a REALLY good speaker in his won right. Reporting him well, then, can only be a good thing.

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