The Enemy Within: What’s Hiding in Plain Sight?

By Jon Sung | Earthdate 01.01.1970

What’s the most dangerous place in the galaxy? Is it Talos IV? Vagra II? Rura Penthe? Maybe. They’re certainly all strong candidates, but I’d bet at least a bar of gold-pressed latinum that nobody would’ve guessed popular Starfleet shore leave destination Ogus II — more specifically, the forest behind one of its arcades. That’s where the less careful among us might one day be out for a walk, feel a rumble in our stomach, and reach for a tasty-looking cove palm fruit, which happen to be infested with parasites so virulently nasty that a Galaxy-class sickbay quarantine force field just doesn’t cut it; you have to be isolated inside a glass box and hope someone gets you to a starbase medical facility before you keel over. This is a lesson that Willie Potts learned, though thankfully not at the cost of his life, in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Brothers.”

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Someone should really have a talk with the landscapers on Ogus II. How necessary are cove palms, really? Do they need to be so close to a public amusement facility? Is there a brochure visitors have to read before they can beam down to the planet’s surface? Maybe there’s a sign somewhere showing a cove palm fruit and a big red X over it that Willie Potts just missed.

Then again, here on Earth, we have all kinds of poisonous plants within relatively easy reach; we even put them in our houses depending on what time of year it is (don’t eat the mistletoe around Christmas, kids). And those are just the natural dangers we know about — there’s plenty we don’t know about, even in the places we thought we understood.

Take rats, for example. Rats harbor diseases; that’s common knowledge. But how many diseases? If you capture a rat and run its blood and tissue through comprehensive DNA sequencing to identify all the pathogens it’s carrying, how many would you find? What if you did that with a bunch of rats? Scientists at Columbia University did just that, and the answers don’t lend themselves to entirely restful sleep. In the 133 rats they trapped from five sites in New York City that included high-density housing complexes, a park, and one “very large indoor mixed-use public space (transportation, food service, retail, and commercial)” that sounds like it might’ve been a subway station, they found a diverse array of viruses, bacteria, and even a single-celled protozoan known to be harmful to humans. Even stranger, they also discovered over a dozen new viruses nobody’s ever seen before.

So that’s great.

Quoth the study:

“While a subset of the agents we identified are known to cause disease in humans, many more are novel viruses whose zoonotic potential cannot be inferred from available data. Although the lack of previous detection of these viruses in human populations suggests that regular zoonotic or sustained transmission is unlikely to be occurring, many rodent-borne pathogens cause only mild or undifferentiated disease in healthy people, and these illnesses are often misdiagnosed and underreported. It is therefore possible that human infection with some of the agents identified here may already be occurring, and the risk of future zoonotic transmission should not be disregarded. Future work should build on the results of this study and begin to assess the impact of the agents identified here on human health in NYC through continued pathogen surveillance and disease monitoring programs.”

In other words: “We found some unknown bugs in these rats, but it’s probably okay — we’ve never seen them in humans before. However, a lot of the rat bugs that do pass to humans only cause mild colds that don’t get reported accurately, so maybe some of these are making the jump now and we just aren’t seeing it; just to be on the safe side, everybody should stay on their toes.” (As an aside, I wonder if this is how some diseases manage to get past transporter biofilters; they might be so new they’re unlike anything Starfleet has ever encountered, or maybe they look like microbes that have appeared before in animals and were harmless.)

This is at least mildly unnerving. We know that pathogens can jump from rodents to people, like hantaviruses, which can cause hemorrhagic fevers similar to Ebola — indeed, the Columbia team found a Korean hantavirus in eight of their rats, the first time it had ever been detected in New York City. They’re not really sure how it got there, but at least they know it lives in rats; our track record at guessing the origins of other diseases isn’t super spot-on. For a while, we thought SARS came from civets (they live in Asia and Africa and very vaguely resemble cats), but now seem to think it was bats, and nobody has any idea where Ebola comes from despite years of searching. At least Dr. Crusher knew exactly where Willie Potts’s cove palm woes came from.

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This Columbia study shows us we’ve got a lot to learn about our own biome. There are entire micro-ecologies we haven’t even begun to map, much less understand, and the sooner we get to it, the better. It’s starting to look increasingly likely that there might be life out there on other worlds, or at least environments that can support life; we should have some practice charting said life from top to bottom, cataloguing every plant, animal, and virus — and how they relate to each other. If it turns out DNA is a universal constant, we need to be doubly careful: not just to insure against the possibility of alien parasites eating us alive, but also to make sure we aren’t the aliens who contaminate a pristine world. Even microbiologists need their own version of the Prime Directive.


 

Jon Sung is a contributing writer for XPRIZE and copywriting gun-for-hire to startups and ventures all over the San Francisco Bay area. When not wrangling words for business or pleasure, he serves as the captain of the USS Loma Prieta, the hardest-partying Star Trek fan club in San Francisco.

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