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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Interagency Meeting on Disease and Homeland Security
National Science Foundation

September 25, 2002

See also slide presentation.

If you're interested in reproducing any of the slides, please contact
The Office of Legislative and Public Affairs: (703) 292-8070.

Thank you. It's a pleasure to welcome all of you to NSF, and it's an excellent portent to have expertise from such a variety of government agencies gathered in one room. All of us know that our focus today--disease and homeland security--is more urgent than ever. Today we will be approaching it from a kaleidoscope of perspectives.

The perspective of each agency represented here is unique--and each one is critical to creating a complex and complete picture of disease. Collectively, we cover the spectrum from medicine to agriculture, from public health to basic research, from remote sensing to intelligence analysis, and more. As I wrote in an op-ed piece in the Baltimore Sun last week, we need to marshal all this talent to move beyond what I call "brush-fire biology"--response to short-term epidemics--and develop a more comprehensive and sustainable effort.

Forty years ago, Nobelist Sir Frank Macfarland Burnet wrote, "One can think of the 20th century as the end of one of the most important social revolutions in history--the virtual elimination of the infectious disease as a significant factor in social life."

[Table of most deadly events]
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This table showing the most deadly events in human history makes quite the opposite case. Infectious diseases are responsible for the three most deadly events--the Spanish Flu, the Black Death of the Middle Ages, and AIDS. Two of those events took place in the 20th century, and one of them, AIDS, is still very much with us.

Our expertise at today's meeting goes beyond human disease, and I'm very pleased about that. The recent theft in Michigan of a bacterium causing a serious respiratory disease in pigs underscores the need for comprehensive biosecurity in this country and abroad.

We can also look to the past for a sobering perspective on how disease can decimate crops or livestock or the environment. How different would the history of our country--and others--have been if the potato blight had not led to the starvation of one million Irish people and forced another two million to migrate to the United States and elsewhere? Our own history is inseparable from the fate of our living environment.

As a headline said recently, "The worst bioterrorist may be nature itself."

Today I hope we can begin to outline the potential for a new, comprehensive and global infrastructure to study disease. We need to construct baselines for disease--to understand their natural dynamics in the environment--as a prelude to prediction. Here is a basis for a vision: to make predictions of disease outbreaks--such as for flu season--the way we now forecast the weather.

Coordinating among all our agencies is absolutely critical to a synthetic approach to human, animal and plant diseases. Certainly, no single agency can provide an overview; for this, we must all pool resources and points-of-view. Today's discussions, I hope, will give each agency's representatives a chance to begin to see how each piece fits into the whole. The world of disease is astoundingly complex, and only with a complex, multiagency perspective can we approach it.

We also need to envision the possibility of a universal data-sharing architecture. Let's think about learning to talk with each other in a mutual vocabulary; for example, what constitutes an epidemic in agriculture might be very different from an epidemic defined by the National Institutes of Health. Specific areas needing coordination, gaps in our efforts, programs to fill these gaps, and ways to bridge the gap between research and development and operations--today's meeting should provide a basis to begin tackling these challenges.

Our work contributes to homeland security in a fundamental sense--it's not just about a quick response to today's threat, or about tomorrow's problem. We need to ground our perspective not only in the time frame of the next year, but in the next decade and beyond.

I will now touch upon some themes to help us think about our multifaceted task, and to illustrate how fundamental research can contribute to security. This framework must have a global and interdisciplinary perspective. It must take full advantage of the cutting-edge tools that are now helping us to grasp the complexity of life.

[dust storm off Africa]
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The global view brings insight on a new scale. Here is a dust storm, originating over West Africa and surging out over the Atlantic Ocean. The African dust carries with it billions of microorganisms--many fungi, bacteria and viruses, among them pathogens of both humans and plants, as well as beneficial organisms. The phenomenon underscores that pathogens do not carry passports. The global travel of human beings has also transformed epidemiology, making it critical to consider transportation issues in our framework.

[life around undersea vents]
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Microorganisms represent a great unexplored frontier. Microbial diversity exists even in the most extreme environments, such as around this undersea vent, and we have just begun to fathom it. Genomics, for the first time, offers the possibility to identify "what's out there."

Even the depths of the sea really are not so remote. A note from my own research: We have very recently identified bacterial genes of the genus Vibrio at hydrothermal vents in the Pacific Ocean. The molecular evidence suggests that these new Vibrio isolates share many properties with Vibrio cholerae, the organism that causes cholera. The most speculative research unexpectedly links back to human health.

[Lenski: bacterial and digital evolution]
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Understanding the complexities of evolution in microorganisms is fundamental to a deeper picture of disease. The intersection of disciplines brings powerful insights to bear. Richard Lenski, a biologist at Michigan State, has joined forces with a computer scientist and a physicist to study how complexity evolves, using two kinds of organisms, bacterial and digital. Here, the two foreground graphs actually show the family tree of digital organisms--artificial life, evolving over time. The organisms on the right compete for diversified resources, and branch out more than the family tree on the left. In the background are round spots--actually growing and evolving populations of the bacterium Esherichia coli, to provide comparison. In vivo derives insight from in silico.

[Buford Price: Background: Long duration balloon launch in Antarctica; optical sizing graph]
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Here's another surprising example of insight at the intersection of disciplines, again stemming from basic research, this time in physical science. A high-energy physicist, Buford Price of the University of California-Berkeley, developed a filter to study cosmic rays above Antarctica. The filter is now being turned in a new direction: to study anthrax.

The team has used the device to show that four species of Bacillus--the genus of anthrax--cluster into distinct populations. The team hopes to test the device in mailrooms.

[two networks from Newman]
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Mathematics also offers tremendous potential for helping to track disease, which we are just beginning to exploit. Mathematical network theory applies to the World Wide Web, to collaborations among scientists, and of course to the way diseases spread. Network models are vital to understanding the character and progression of an epidemic.

Here, network research by Mark Newman of the Santa Fe Institute depicts two types of human networks. If we attempt to apply a strategy to control disease--that is, to find highly connected people and to treat them--it works well with the case on the right, but not in the network on the left. The catch is, however, that most social networks seem more like the one on the left. As Newman says, "This suggests that our current simple strategies for tackling the spread of infection may not be effective."

[Table of diseases with environmental links]
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An ecological perspective is also essential to dealing with the challenge of disease in the 21st century. This table gives examples of some diseases that interact with climate. One important climate pattern, El Nino/Southern Oscillation, has been linked to outbreaks of malaria, dengue fever, encephalitis, diarrheal disease and cholera. Environmental change can nudge pathogens and vectors toward new regions, creating "emerging diseases" at new locales.

[cholera outbreaks, SST and SSH]
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My own work traces one of these stories--the case of cholera. In endemic regions, cholera appears seasonally. As we now know, environmental, seasonal and climate factors influence the populations of the larger host organism for cholera, the copepod.

Cholera epidemics are seasonal. Using remote sensing imagery, we discovered that, in areas of Bangladesh, cholera outbreaks occur shortly after sea surface temperature and sea surface height are at their zenith. This usually occurs twice a year, in spring and fall.

[cholera in the Chesapeake Bay]
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In the 1970s, my colleagues and I realized that the ocean itself is a reservoir for V. cholerae, much of which might not be culturable from the water, but it is still present (this slide shows our sampling sites). In fact, the natural population of cholera bacteria fluctuates with the seasons in the Chesapeake, just the way it does in the Bay of Bengal.

[phylogeny of hantavirus]
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Another excellent example of a disease only understandable in its environmental context: Hantavirus. Many of you will be familiar with the story of how the hantavirus was discovered in the Four Corners area of the United States. Its carrier turned out to be a deer mouse, whose population varies with ecological conditions--including a link with El Nino.

Hantaviruses generally have evolved closely with their rodent hosts. Looking at this phylogenetic tree, on the left we see the various viral strains, and on the right the rodent species that host each one.

[Canyon del Muerto]
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In New Mexico, Canyon del Muerto, pictured here peppered with red dots, seems to be a likely place for hantavirus to "hide" for years between outbreaks. It will be interesting to learn what role this virus plays in nature.

[West Nile Virus maps, showing spread of disease]
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A more recent occurrence in the U.S., of course, is West Nile Virus. An article in this September's Lancet points out, "The dramatic appearance of epidemic West Nile meningoencephalitis in the New York City area in an unsettling reminder of the ability of viruses to jump continents and hemispheres." We see here the progressive spread of West Nile virus across the United States; eventually it is predicted to spread to Central and South America and to the Caribbean as well.

This series of maps merely records history, but imagine if these had been predictive maps--if we had the environmental, medical and social information, and were able to synthesize it, to produce predictions of outbreaks of West Nile and other diseases.

West Nile's appearance in this country carries another lesson. It appeared in animals four-to-six weeks before it was found in humans--all the more reason to include the Department of Agriculture in an effort on disease and homeland security.

We need a much richer understanding of how organisms react to environmental change. Today, we simply do not have the capability to answer ecological questions on a regional to continental scale, whether involving invasive species or bioterrorist agents.

In this context, NEON--the planned National Ecological Observation Network--will be invaluable. I would like to play you a short video clip that illustrates the concept of NEON. The video, please.

[1-minute 40 sec. NEON video with soundtrack] video not available

[Static and dynamic approaches to public health]
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I think we've seen how NEON will be able to track environmental change from the microbiological to the continental scale. Let's move from there to a framework for thinking more dynamically, and realistically, about infectious disease (and I thank Mark Wilson of the University of Michigan for the concept).

The white triangle depicts infectious-disease agent, host, and environment frozen in time and space. In this model, we tend to wait for clinical cases to appear before public health measures are taken.

A more dynamic view--the colored triangle--suggests the complexity of the real world, with time lags, feedbacks, and interactions across scales. Such an approach contradicts the linear, simplistic notion that we can successfully eradicate a disease from the face of the planet.

At the same time, as we plot these complex links, and recognize signals from climate models and incorporate them into health measures, new opportunities arise for proactive--rather than reactive--approaches to public health.

[Ship and Aldo Leopold quote]
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The prophet of ecology, Aldo Leopold, counseled that we must "covert our collective knowledge of biotic materials into a collective wisdom of biotic navigation." With new tools, with the insights from the intersections of disciplines, and with a global perspective, we are launching for the first time on a course to chart the outlines of our biocomplex world, and that includes the dynamics of disease. The infrastructure and approaches developed to understand infectious disease also poise us to confront the threat of bioterrorism.

With this perspective, I hope we will hear the thoughts of all today on how we as federal agencies can connect--how we can apply the results of cutting-edge research more quickly to national needs; how we can better coordinate our efforts; and how we can build the needed infrastructure that will serve to detect and ultimately predict disease, whether in the realm of public health, agriculture, or the environment. It should be a truly interesting day--and I hope it's only the beginning.



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