"President Kennedy was the first president to not wear a hat. Have you seen men wearing hats since then?" Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of the world's few astrophysicists with a household name, asks on the phone from his car. Well, no. "If I wear some cowboy hats, it's because it's the outfit, it's not because that's my standard equipment when I leave the home."
"We have classes on 100 things and none of them are on the ability to distinguish what is true and what is not."
But Tyson, who speaks in methodically reasoned paragraphs with lots of semi-rhetorical questions to make sure we're all still listening, isn't really making a point about Mad Men-era men's clothing trends. "Should a president influence fashion?" he says. "I think people sometimes don't know the full power they have over other people. So, that's the first prong in this comment. My second prong is, why would anyone take medical advice from a politician?"
Days before our conversation, news broke that President Trump said he was taking hydroxychloroquine, which he had hyped for months as a surefire magical cure for COVID-19 — the science just hadn't caught up to his predictions. But the science never did catch up; instead, it went the opposite direction, showing that hydroxychloroquine, when used to treat COVID-19 patients, actually led to an increased risk of death.
Alarm spread swiftly around the globe as experts cast the president's professed self-medicating as illogical and dangerous. However, it was just one of a series of wild pieces of medical advice espoused by Trump from his mighty pulpit, like that, hey, maybe disinfectants could cure people when injected into their bodies. (That also leads to death.)
But people do take medical advice from politicians. An Arizona man afraid of COVID-19 died after consuming chloroquine phosphate, which he and his wife had sitting on the back of a shelf after using it to treat koi fish for parasites. The pandemic has exposed many weaknesses in the feedback loop of society, government, the media, and science, including the difficulty of seeding accurate medical information with the masses. Many on the left and right decry a broken political and news media system, but Tyson believes the problem isn't mega-influencers like Trump. Rather it's the general public's desire to take their advice on complex topics – like the science of virology – that such influencers know nothing about.
Tyson's not upset with the public, who follow Trump's advice. "As an educator, I can't get angry with you," he says. Or even Trump himself. "Trump was elected by 60 million people, right? So, you could say all you want about Trump, kick him out of office, whatever. [There's] still the 60 million fellow Americans who walk among us who voted for him. So, what are you going to do with them?"
Tyson also isn't upset with Facebook, Twitter, and other social platforms that serve as today's biggest conduits for misinformation. After all, in the realm of modern media's history, these networks are tadpoles. "As an educator and as a scientist, I'm leaning towards, let's figure out a way to train people in school to not fall victim to false information, and how to judge what is likely to be false relative to what is likely to be true. And that's hard, but you and I have never had a class in that, have we? We've had biology classes, we've had English lit, we've had classes on Shakespeare — we have classes on 100 things and none of them are on the ability to distinguish what is true and what is not."
This is why Tyson himself doesn't engage in Trump bashing on his social feeds, but does try to get people to differentiate factual science from fake news. "I feel responsibility to participate in the enlightenment of culture and of civilization, because I have that access," says Tyson, who has 13.9M followers on Twitter, 1.2M on Instagram, and 4.2M on Facebook. He doesn't tell his followers not to inject themselves with Clorox ("no one likes being told what to do"), but tries to get them to visualize a pandemic's impact by comparing it to, say, a throng of rabbits.
"Left unchecked, 1,000 rabbits in 5 years, become 7-billion, the human population of the World. After 15 years, a 'land-ocean' of rabbits fills to one-kilometer depth across all of Earth's continents. Viruses can reproduce waaaay faster than Rabbits," he tweeted on April 6, after much of the nation had locked down to slow the pandemic's spread. For added viral impact, he attached a photo of an adorable, perhaps appropriately scared-looking, white bunny.
Of course, not all celebrities message responsibly.
Tyson is a rare scientist-turned-celebrity. His appeal isn't acting in movies or singing dance-pop anthems (if only). Rather, his life's work is making science fun and interesting to as many people as possible through his best-selling books on astrophysics and his directorship of the planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. His longstanding place in popular culture is an exception, not the rule.
And he believes his fellow celebrities, actors and pop music stars and internet influencers, should aid the public's quest for accurate scientific information. And in order to do that, they must point their followers to experts and organizations who know what they're talking about. "It could be to a website, it could be to a talk that was given. I would say that that's where the responsibility lies if you control the interests of a million people," he says.
One example of this is Lady Gaga's March 14 Instagram of herself on her couch with her three dogs with the caption, "So I talked to some doctors and scientists. It's not the easiest for everyone right now but the kindest/healthiest thing we can do is self-quarantine and not hang out with people over 65 and in large groups. I wish I could see my parents and grandmas right now but it's much safer to not so I don't get them sick in case I have it. I'm hanging at home with my dogs." (All the celebrities here in this article are my references, not Tyson's, who does not call out specific people.)
Of course, not all celebrities message responsibly. Jessica Biel and Jenny McCarthy have faced scorn for public stances against vaccines. Gwyneth Paltrow and her media brand GOOP have faced backlash for promoting homeopathic treatments with no basis in science.
"The New Age Movement is a cultural idea, it has nothing to do with religion, has nothing to do with politics, and it's people who were rejecting objectively established science in part or in total because they have a belief system that they want to attach to it, okay? This is how you get the homeopathic remedies," says Tyson. "That's why science exists, so that we don't have to base decisions on belief systems."
[Editor's Note: This article was originally published on June 8th, 2020 as part of a standalone magazine called GOOD10: The Pandemic Issue. Produced as a partnership among LeapsMag, The Aspen Institute, and GOOD, the magazine is available for free online.]
Every year, one in seven people in America comes down with a foodborne illness, typically caused by a bacterial pathogen, including E.Coli, listeria, salmonella, or campylobacter. That adds up to 48 million people, of which 120,000 are hospitalized and 3000 die, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And the variety of foods that can be contaminated with bacterial pathogens is growing too. In the 20th century, E.Coli and listeria lurked primarily within meat. Now they find their way into lettuce, spinach, and other leafy greens, causing periodic consumer scares and product recalls. Onions are the most recent suspected culprit of a nationwide salmonella outbreak.
Some of these incidents are almost inevitable because of how Mother Nature works, explains Divya Jaroni, associate professor of animal and food sciences at Oklahoma State University. These common foodborne pathogens come from the cattle's intestines when the animals shed them in their manure—and then they get washed into rivers and lakes, especially in heavy rains. When this water is later used to irrigate produce farms, the bugs end up on salad greens. Plus, many small farms do both—herd cattle and grow produce.
"Unfortunately for us, these pathogens are part of the microflora of the cows' intestinal tract," Jaroni says. "Some farmers may have an acre or two of cattle pastures, and an acre of a produce farm nearby, so it's easy for this water to contaminate the crops."
Food producers and packagers fight bacteria by potent chemicals, with chlorine being the go-to disinfectant. Cattle carcasses, for example, are typically washed by chlorine solutions as the animals' intestines are removed. Leafy greens are bathed in water with added chlorine solutions. However, because the same "bath" can be used for multiple veggie batches and chlorine evaporates over time, the later rounds may not kill all of the bacteria, sparing some. The natural and organic producers avoid chlorine, substituting it with lactic acid, a more holistic sanitizer, but even with all these efforts, some pathogens survive, sickening consumers and causing food recalls. As we farm more animals and grow more produce, while also striving to use fewer chemicals and more organic growing methods, it will be harder to control bacteria's spread.
"It took us a long time to convince the FDA phages were safe and efficient alternatives. But we had worked with them to gather all the data they needed, and the FDA was very supportive in the end."
Luckily, bacteria have their own killers. Called bacteriophages, or phages for short, they are viruses that prey on bacteria only. Under the electron microscope, they look like fantasy spaceships, with oblong bodies, spider-like legs and long tails. Much smaller than a bacterium, phages pierce the microbes' cells with their tails, sneak in and begin multiplying inside, eventually bursting the microbes open—and then proceed to infect more of them. The best part is that these phages are harmless to humans. Moreover, recent research finds that millions of phages dwell on us and in us—in our nose, throat, skin and gut, protecting us from bacterial infections as part of our healthy microbiome. A recent study suggested that we absorb about 30 billion phages into our bodies on a daily basis. Now, ingeniously, they are starting to be deployed as anti-microbial agents in the food industry.
A Maryland-based phage research company called Intralytix is doing just that. Founded by Alexander Sulakvelidze, a microbiologist and epidemiologist who came to the United States from Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, Intralytix makes and sells five different FDA-approved phage cocktails that work against some of the most notorious food pathogens: ListShield for Listeria, SalmoFresh for Salmonella, ShigaShield for Shigella, another foodborne bug, and EcoShield for E.coli, including the infamous strain that caused the Jack in the Box outbreak in 1993 that killed four children and sickened 732 people across four states. Earlier this month, the FDA granted its approval to yet another Intralytix phage for managing Campylobacter contamination, named CampyShield. "We call it safety by nature," Sulakvelidze says.
Intralytix grows phages inside massive 1500-liter fermenters, feeding them bacterial "fodder."
Photo credit: Living Radiant Photography
Phage preparations are relatively straightforward to make. In nature, phages thrive in any body of water where bacteria live too, including rivers, lakes and bays. "I can dip a bucket into the Chesapeake Bay, and it will be full of all kinds of phages," Sulakvelidze says. "Sewage is another great place to look for specific phages of interest, because it's teeming with all sorts of bacteria—and therefore the viruses that prey on them." In lab settings, Intralytix grows phages inside massive 1500-liter fermenters, feeding them bacterial "fodder." Once phages multiply enough, they are harvested, dispensed into containers and shipped to food producers who have adopted this disinfecting practice into their preparation process. Typically, it's done by computer-controlled sprayer systems that disperse mist-like phage preparations onto the food.
Unlike chemicals like chlorine or antibiotics, which kill a wide spectrum of bacteria, phages are more specialized, each feeding on specific microbial species. A phage that targets salmonella will not prey on listeria and vice versa. So food producers may sometimes use a combo of different phage preparations. Intralytix is continuously researching and testing new phages. With a contract from the National Institutes of Health, Intralytix is expanding its automated high-throughput robot that tests which phages work best against which bacteria, speeding up the development of the new phage cocktails.
Phages have other "talents." In her recent study, Jaroni found that phages have the ability to destroy bacterial biofilms—colonies of microorganisms that tend to grow on surfaces of the food processing equipment, surrounding themselves with protective coating that even very harsh chemicals can't crack. "Phages are very clever," Jaroni says. "They produce enzymes that target the biofilms, and once they break through, they can reach the bacteria."
Convincing the FDA that phages were safe to use on food products was no easy feat, Sulakvelidze says. In his home country of Georgia, phages have been used as antimicrobial remedies for over a century, but the FDA was leery of using viruses as food safety agents. "It took us a long time to convince the FDA phages were safe and efficient alternatives," Sulakvelidze says. "But we had worked with them to gather all the data they needed, and the FDA was very supportive in the end." The agency had granted Intralytix its first approval in 2006, and over the past 10 years, the company's sales increased by over 15-fold. "We currently sell to about 40 companies and are in discussions with several other large food producers," Sulakvelidze says. One indicator that the industry now understands and appreciates the science of phages was that his company was ranked as Top Food Safety Provider in 2021 by Food and Beverage Technology Review, he adds. Notably, phage sprays are kosher, halal and organic-certified.
Intralytix's phage cocktails to safeguard food from bacteria are approved for consumers in addition to food producers, but currently the company sells to food producers only. Selling retail requires different packaging like easy-to-use spray bottles and different marketing that would inform people about phages' antimicrobial qualities. But ultimately, giving people the ability to remove pathogens from their food with probiotic phage sprays is the goal, Sulakvelidze says.
It's not the company's only goal. Now Intralytix is going a step further, investigating phages' probiotic and therapeutic abilities. Because phages are highly specialized in the bacteria they target, they can be used to treat infections caused by specific pathogens while leaving the beneficial species of our microbiome intact. In an ongoing clinical trial with Mount Sinai, Intralytix is now investigating a potential phage treatment against a certain type of E. coli for patients with Crohn's disease, and is about to start another clinical trial for treating bacterial dysentery.
"Now that we have proved that phages are safe and effective against foodborne bacteria," Sulakvelidze says, "we are going to demonstrate their potential in therapeutic applications."
In 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan switched the residents' water supply to the Flint river, citing cheaper costs. However, due to improper filtering, lead contaminated this water, and according to the Associated Press, many of the city's residents soon reported health issues like hair loss and rashes. In 2015, a report found that children there had high levels of lead in their blood. The National Resource Defense Council recently discovered there could still be as many as twelve million lead pipes carrying water to homes across the U.S.
What if Flint residents and others in afflicted areas could simply flick water onto their phone screens and an app would tell them if they were about to drink contaminated water? This is what researchers at the University of Cambridge are working on to prevent catastrophes like what occurred in Flint, and to prepare for an uncertain future of scarcer resources.
Underneath the tough glass of our phone screen lies a transparent layer of electrodes. Because our bodies hold an electric charge, when our finger touches the screen, it disrupts the electric field created among the electrodes. This is how the screen can sense where a touch occurs. Cambridge scientists used this same idea to explore whether the screen could detect charges in water, too. Metals like arsenic and lead can appear in water in the form of ions, which are charged particles. When the ionic solution is placed on the screen's surface, the electrodes sense that charge like how they sense our finger.
Imagine a new generation of smartphones with a designated area of the screen responsible for detecting contamination—this is one of the possible futures the researchers propose.
The experiment measured charges in various electrolyte solutions on a touchscreen. The researchers found that a thin polymer layer between the electrodes and the sample solution helped pick up the charges.
"How can we get really close to the touch electrodes, and be better than a phone screen?" Horstmann, the lead scientist on the study, asked himself while designing the protective coating. "We found that when we put electrolytes directly on the electrodes, they were too close, even short-circuiting," he said. When they placed the polymer layer on top the electrodes, however, this short-circuiting did not occur. Horstmann speaks of the polymer layer as one of the key findings of the paper, as it allowed for optimum conductivity. The coating they designed was much thinner than what you'd see with a typical smartphone touchscreen, but because it's already so similar, he feels optimistic about the technology's practical applications in the real world.
While the Cambridge scientists were using touchscreens to measure water contamination, Dr. Baojun Wang, a synthetic biologist at the University of Edinburgh, along with his team, created a way to measure arsenic contamination in Bangladesh groundwater samples using what is called a cell-based biosensor. These biosensors use cornerstones of cellular activity like transcription and promoter sequences to detect the presence of metal ions in water. A promoter can be thought of as a "flag" that tells certain molecules where to begin copying genetic code. By hijacking this aspect of the cell's machinery and increasing the cell's sensing and signal processing ability, they were able to amplify the signal to detect tiny amounts of arsenic in the groundwater samples. All this was conducted in a 384-well plate, each well smaller than a pencil eraser.
They placed arsenic sensors with different sensitivities across part of the plate so it resembled a volume bar of increasing levels of arsenic, similar to diagnostics on a Fitbit or glucose monitor. The whole device is about the size of an iPhone, and can be scaled down to a much smaller size.
Dr. Wang says cell-based biosensors are bringing sensing technology closer to field applications, because their machinery uses inherent cellular activity. This makes them ideal for low-resource communities, and he expects his device to be affordable, portable, and easily stored for widespread use in households.
"It hasn't worked on actual phones yet, but I don't see any reason why it can't be an app," says Horstmann of their technology. Imagine a new generation of smartphones with a designated area of the screen responsible for detecting contamination—this is one of the possible futures the researchers propose. But industry collaborations will be crucial to making their advancements practical. The scientists anticipate that without collaborative efforts from the business sector, the public might have to wait ten years until this becomes something all our smartphones are capable of—but with the right partners, "it could go really quickly," says Dr. Elizabeth Hall, one of the authors on the touchscreen water contamination study.
"That's where the science ends and the business begins," Dr. Hall says. "There is a lot of interest coming through as a result of this paper. I think the people who make the investments and decisions are seeing that there might be something useful here."
As for Flint, according to The Detroit News, the city has entered the final stages in removing lead pipe infrastructure. It's difficult to imagine how many residents might fare better today if they'd had the technology that scientists are now creating.
Of all its tragedy, COVID-19 has increased demand for at-home testing methods, which has carried over to non-COVID-19-related devices. Various testing efforts are now in the public eye.
"I like that the public is watching these directions," says Horstmann. "I think there's a long way to go still, but it's exciting."