Rapid Mutation of RNA-Based Flu Virus Allows Rapid Adaptation to Immune System Response

I found the passage quoted below to be especially illuminating on how rapid mutation helps explain why the flu virus is so successful and dangerous. (An additional important factor is that the virus can survive in birds, without killing them.)
It occurs to me that something akin to rapid mutation (e.g., rapid experimentation) has also been advocated as a way to quickly advance science (Karl Popper), or enterprise (George Gilder).

(p. 105) Whenever an organism reproduces, its genes try to make exact copies of themselves. But sometimes mistakes–mutations–occur in this process.

This is true whether the genes belong to people, plants, or viruses. The more advanced the organism, however, the more mechanisms exist to prevent mutations. A person mutates at a much slower rate than bacteria, bacteria mutates at a much slower rate than a virus–and a DNA virus mutates at a much slower rate than an RNA virus.
DNA has a kind of built-in proofreading mechanism to cut down on copying mistakes. RNA has no proofreading mechanism whatsoever, no way to protect against mutation. So viruses that use RNA to carry their genetic information mutate much faster–from 10,000 to 1 million times faster–than any DNA virus.
Different RNA viruses mutate at different rates as well. A few mutate so rapidly that virologists consider them not so much a population of copies of the same virus as what they call a “quasi species” or a “mutant swarm.”
These mutant swarms contain trillions and trillions of closely related but different viruses. Even the viruses produced from a single cell will include many different versions of themselves, and the swarm as a whole will routinely contain almost every possible permutation of its genetic code.
Most of these mutations interfere with the functioning of the virus and will either destroy the virus outright or destroy its ability to infect. But other mutations, sometimes in a single base, a single letter, in its genetic code will allow the virus to adapt rapidly to a new situation. It is this adaptability that explains why these quasi species, these mutant swarms, can move rapidly back and forth between different environments and also develop extraordinarily rapid drug resistance. As one investigator has observed, the rapid mutation “confers a certain randomness to the disease processes that accompany RNA [viral] infections.”
Influenza is an RNA virus. So is HIV and the coronavirus. And of all RNA viruses, influenza and HIV are among those that mutate the fastest. The influenza virus mutates so fast that 99 percent of the 100,000 to 1 million new viruses that burst out of a cell in the reproduction process (p. 106) are too defective to infect another cell and reproduce again. But that still leaves between 1,000 and 10,000 viruses that can infect another cell.
Both influenza and HIV fit the concept of a quasi species, of a mutant swarm. In both, a drug-resistant mutation can emerge within days. And the influenza virus reproduces rapidly–far faster than HIV. Therefore it adapts rapidly as well, often too rapidly for the immune system to respond.

Barry, John M. The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. Revised ed. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.
(Note: italics in original.)

Measuring High Level Entrepreneurship


The Measurement Center of the Fraser Institute held a contest on the theme of what most needed to be better measured. I entered the contest, arguing that high level entrepreneurs are crucial to economic growth and human progress, and yet are not often the subject of systematic (as contrasted with anecdotal) study.
It turns out that my one minute video submission was picked as one of four “runners-up” in the contest.

Details of the contest and the winners, can be found at:
My minute video can be viewed at:

George Shultz Sceptical of War on Drugs

George Shultz has a distinguished résumé. He was Dean of the University of Chicago business school, Secretary of the Treasury under President Nixon, and Secretary of State under President Reagan. Along with the late Milton Friedman, he is sceptical about the War on Drugs, and is willing to express his scepticism:

(p. A17) He has long harbored skepticism about interdiction as a solution to drug abuse in the U.S. Those doubts were prescient.
. . .
Mr. Shultz recalls what happened shortly after he left government, when his view that interdiction is not the solution came up after a speech to a Stanford alumni group.
Then, as now, he believed that we need to look at the problem from an economic perspective and understand what happens when there is high demand for a prohibited substance. When his comment hit the press, he says he “was inundated with letters. Ninety-eight percent of them agreed with me and over half of those people said I’m glad you said it, but I wouldn’t dare say it. The most poignant comment was from [a former member of the House of Representatives] who wrote and said I was glad to see your statement. I said that a few years ago and that’s why I’m no longer a congressman!”

For the full commentary, see:
MARY ANASTASIA O’GRADY. “George Shultz on the Drug War; The former secretary of state has long doubted the wisdom of interdiction.” The Wall Street Journal (Mon., OCTOBER 12, 2009): A17.
(Note: the online version of the article is dated Oct. 11, 2009.)
(Note: ellipsis added.)

Small Evidence Kills Big Theory


Big Tyrannosaurus rex and much smaller Raptorex kriegsteini. Source of image: http://scienceblogs.com/notrocketscience/upload/2009/09/raptorex_tiny_king_of_thieves_shows_how_tyrannosaurus_body_p/Raptorex_Trex.jpg

(p. A5) Paleontologists said Thursday that they had discovered what amounted to a miniature prototype of Tyrannosaurus rex, complete with the oversize head, powerful jaws, long legs — and, as every schoolchild knows, puny arms — that were hallmarks of the king of the dinosaurs.

But this scaled-down version, which was about nine feet long and weighed only 150 pounds, lived 125 million years ago, about 35 million years before giant Tyrannosaurs roamed the earth. So the discovery calls into question theories about the evolution of T. rex, which was about five times longer and almost 100 times heavier.
“The thought was these signature Tyrannosaur features evolved as a consequence of large body size,” Stephen L. Brusatte of the American Museum of National History, an author of a paper describing the dinosaur published online by the journal Science, said at a news conference. “They needed to modify their entire skeleton so they could function as a predator at such colossal size.”
The new dinosaur, named Raptorex kriegsteini, “really throws a wrench into this observed pattern,” Mr. Brusatte said.

For the full story, see:
HENRY FOUNTAIN. “Fossil Discovery Challenges Theories on T. Rex Evolution.” The New York Times (Fri., September 18, 2009): A5.
(Note: the online version is dated Sept. 17th and has the slightly different title: “Fossil Find Challenges Theories on T. Rex” but the body of the article seems the same as the print version.)

Scientist Huxley: “The Great End of Life is Not Knowledge But Action”

John Barry calls our attention to the views of Thomas Huxley who gave the keynote address at the founding of the Johns Hopkins University:

(p. 13) A brilliant scientist, later president of the Royal Society, he advised investigators, “Sit down before a fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion. Follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing.” He also believed that learning had purpose, stating, “The great end of life is not knowledge but action.”

Barry, John M. The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. Revised ed. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.
(Note: from the context in Barry, I am not certain whether the Huxley quotes are from the keynote address, or from elsewhere in Huxley’s writings.)

“Recent Temperature Plateau” May Undermine Case for Global Warming

GlobalWarmingPlateauGraph2009-09-27.jpgSource of graph: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A10) The world leaders who met at the United Nations to discuss climate change on Tuesday are faced with an intricate challenge: building momentum for an international climate treaty at a time when global temperatures have been relatively stable for a decade and may even drop in the next few years.

The plateau in temperatures has been seized upon by skeptics as evidence that the threat of global warming is overblown. And some climate experts worry that it could hamper treaty negotiations and slow the progress of legislation to curb carbon dioxide emissions in the United States.
. . .

Underscoring just how little clarity there is on short-term temperature fluctuations, researchers from Britain’s climate change office, in a paper published in August, projected “an end to this period of relative stability,” with half the years between now and 2015 exceeding the record-setting global temperatures of 1998.
Whatever the next decade may hold, critics of global warming have lost no time in using the current temperature plateau to build their case.
“I think it supports the arguments of those who’ve said, ‘What’s the rush for policy on this issue?’ ” said Patrick J. Michaels, a climatologist affiliated with George Mason University and the Cato Institute, a group opposing most regulatory solutions to environmental problems.
. . .

A clearer view of whether the recent temperature plateau undermines arguments for dangerous climate change in the long run should come in a few years, as the predictions made by the British climate researchers are tested. Their paper appeared in a supplement to an August issue of The Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.
While the authors concluded that there was a 1 in 8 chance of having a decade-long pause in warming like the current plateau, even with rising concentrations of greenhouse gases, the odds of a 15-year pause, they wrote, are only 5 in 100. As a result, the next few years of observations could tip the balance toward further concern or greater optimism.
Meanwhile, social scientists who study the way people understand and respond to environmental problems say it is not surprising that the current temperature stability has created confusion and apathy.

For the full story, see:
ANDREW C. REVKIN. “Plateau in Temperatures Adds Difficulty to Task of Reaching a Solution.” The New York Times (Weds., Sept. 23, 2009): A10.
(Note: the online version lists a date of September 21 and has the title as “Momentum on Climate Pact Is Elusive”, but the body of the article seems to be the same as the print version.)
(Note: ellipses added.)

Feds Spent $850,000 to “Green” Buildings, and then Tore Them Down

(p. 4A) WASHINGTON — The four drafty buildings had been fix­tures of the Energy Depart­ment complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn., for more than half a cen­tury. They burned energy like 1950s sedans.

The buildings seemed like perfect candidates for a federal conservation retrofit program that relies on private contrac­tors that receive a percentage of the money they save. A deal was struck in 2001. The con­tractor reworked lighting and heating systems, among other things, and began collecting payments.

The project was count­ed among the department’s “green” successes — until auditors discovered that the buildings had been torn down several years ago, and the gov­ernment had paid $850,000 for energy savings at facilities that no longer existed.

The audit findings show the potential for waste and abuse at a time when the department is poised to launch billions of dollars more in stimulus spend­ing on an unprecedented welter of green projects across the country.
. . .
The problems are not exclu­sive to Oak Ridge. The audi­tors, from the department’s inspector general’s office, also determined that $565,000 had been paid over six years un­der the same arrangement to a contractor in Texas for a high­efficiency laundry that was no longer in use.

The department also paid out $3.4 million on another project without checking whether the conservation measures worked — and $160,000 for measure­ments that were never taken.

For the full story, see:
THE WASHINGTON POST. “Audit finds ‘green’ projects resulted in waste, abuse; The findings point to a need for oversight as the government readies stimulus projects.” Omaha World-Herald (Sun., Sept. 27, 2009): 4A.
(Note: ellipsis added.)