A SHARED MEAL
In this year, 2020, we are under attack, attacked by a creature that can’t reproduce without us. That, to the extent that it eats, eats us. We can’t see it, but we can breathe it. Passing it on in little airborne droplets of mucus. Covid-19 [Corona Virus Disease, 2019].(6)
Almost 4.5 million people live in Kentucky. (1) There are about 330 million in the United States, 1.3 billion in India, and 1.4 billion in China.
Total world population? About 7.8 billion. Expected world population in 2050? An estimated 10 billion.(2)
That is a great number of complicated, competing, biological machines we call people. And we all have to eat.
But our numbers pale in comparison to other living things. Such as the eukaryotic cells that comprise each of you. You have about 37 trillion of them, each carrying the complete complement of codes necessary to rebuild yourself.
Now here is where it gets interesting. Living on, in, and around your body are many other tiny creatures. Symbiotes mostly, feeding off you, using your cellular tissues and metabolism to reproduce. Many as parasites. How many? Numbers range in projection from 1 to 10 times the number of cells that agree to your personality. You do the math.(3)
You are covered with them now, and are under attack. They are your personal, and not necessarily affectionate, microbiota. Bacteria, protozoans, viruses, and even roundworms. It is a viral attack that has now placed us in this pandemic.
Viruses. You can’t see them, even under a typical microscope. They were first observed in an electron microscope around 1935. That was the Tobacco Mosaic Virus, a spring-like bit of genetic material, cloaked in protein and shaped into a rod-like length. Why study a tobacco virus first? There is a lot of money in that product, and a lot of tobacco in Kentucky.
Viruses are tiny things, ten times smaller than the smallest bacteria. There is a curious debate raging, as to whether they are even alive. Here is why.
Other than a small amount of genetic code [RNA (ribonucleic acid), or DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid)], there is nothing there, other than a protein shield and some sort of molecular knife to cut into your cells’ walls [in some, like the Coronavirus, there is also a lipid envelope]. After that entry, the alien genetic code is injected, takes over your cell’s reproductive capabilities, and spews out copies of itself. You may be breathing some out of your nose right now.
It is remarkable that we survive at all, from the onslaught of these microbial beasts. But we have evolved intriguing defense systems to kill them innately, or to craft specific antibody warnings if, after once being infected by their antigens, they dare to invade again.
And we are not alone in being targets. Bacteria have evolved their own response to repulse their viral invaders [bacteriophages, more about them later]. In fact, their system is more ancient than ours and, having been recently discovered, has been turned, by us, into our own genetic engineering weapon. We call it CRISPR [Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats]. Look for our use of CRISPR in fighting the current viral pandemic.
Here is another important consideration. Humans need food to survive. To feed our complex metabolic machinery. But these tiny terrors also invade our food sources. Plant and animal pathogens include fungi, bacteria, viruses, and nematodes. And as our population has grown, our populations have grown fewer types of plants and animals, in larger numbers and concentrations. With such opportunities provided, these pathogens have exploded in diversity. And certainly to the detriment of those people who rely on those limited foodstuffs for survival.
Some plant examples:
The infamous Irish potato blight of 1845-1850 [a fungus, Phytophthora infestans]. One million died, more migrated. Ireland’s population dropped from 8 to 5.5 million.
The Southern United States Corn Blight of 1970 [a fungus, Cochliobolus heterostrophus (race-t)]. Eighty percent of U.S. corn crop was susceptible. $1 billion in losses.
Cassava [Manihot esculenta]. One of three top carbohydrate food sources for the world population [after rice and corn]. You may know its starch as tapioca. In the developing world, cassava may feed 500,000 people [even though its skin is toxic, containing cyanide precursors]. In Central Africa, it is attacked by at least two viruses. The East African Cassava Mosaic Virus, and the Cassava Brown Streak Virus.
Some livestock examples:
Cattle – “Foot and Mouth” Disease [virus] and Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy [BSE, prion disease, similar to Mad Cow Disease and the wasting disease in deer].
Swine – “Greasy Pig” [bacteria]; Coccidiosis [protozoan]; Swine Dysentery [bacteria].
Poultry – Escherichia coli [bacteria]; Salmonellosis [bacteria]; Avian Flu [virus]; Fowl Pox [virus].
So what will this Coronavirus, our Covid-19 pandemic, do to our food supply? It attacks the providers of food: human farmers, processors, transporters, retailers, and restaurants. Here are some of the projected impacts.
First, there’s you, right here in Kentucky. Right there in your kitchen. Staying home, cooking more, hopefully with foods that are better for you. One thing that the Coronavirus has taught us, is about “underlying conditions.” Such as hypertension, obesity, and diabetes. Will the American lifestyle and diet change, increasing the health of the population? Maybe.
But not everyone in Kentucky, in America, in the World, are prosperous enough to accomplish such a change. And that will be one of the great tragedies of the Covid-19 pandemic. The breakdown of food distribution systems. Farmers unable to market their product. Crop growers unable to obtain migrant labor, which has traditionally harvested their fruits and vegetables. Labor unwilling to work in the traditional meat industry, where social distancing and virus protections are difficult and expensive.(4)
And think of the impact on global production and distribution of foodstuffs. Closed borders, banned air flights, increased tariffs. The economic devastation of stay-at-home protections. (5)
United Nation officials believe that the Coronavirus pandemic will double the number of people in starvation. More than 260 million. It’s not that we don’t have enough food. We do. The question is how to get the food to them. And are we willing to pay to do so?
But there is now much more focus on the science and source of these tiny attackers, and the workings of our immune system, which, after decades of passively relying on antibacterial drugs, turns out to be our most important weapon.
And here is another thought. Perhaps now we will pay more attention to those pathogens of the plants and animals that we feed upon. Killers, which constantly threaten our food supply and distribution.
A promising new area of research involves bacteriophages. Viruses that attack bacteria, and may be the oldest, and most numerous, organisms on our planet. Find the phage specific for a pathogenic bacterium and, like a silver bullet, kill it. Even phage enzymes, such as lysins, can attack certain bacteria.
Maybe Covid-19 will stimulate further investigation into that famous Tobacco Mosaic Virus. A surprising benefit, perhaps, of all the tobacco once grown in Kentucky.
(1) The 2020 Decennial Census is currently ongoing in the United States. Article 1, Section 2, of the Constitution.
(4) On April 28, 2020, President Trump triggered the Defense Production Act of 1950 (DPA, originally passed during the Korean War), by issuing an Executive Order defining meat, pursuant to 50 U.S.C. Section 4511, as “a scarce and critical material, essential to the national defense,” and requiring the operation of meat processing plants.
(5) On May 19, 2020, President Trump issued an Executive Order, pursuant to the DPA, stating as follows: “It is the policy of the United States to combat the economic consequences of COVID-19 with the same vigor and resourcefulness with which the fight against COVID-19 itself has been waged. Agencies should address this economic emergency by rescinding, modifying, waiving, or providing exemptions from regulations and other requirements that may inhibit economic recovery …”
(6) This article was originally published in the July/August 2020 magazine of the Kentucky Bar Association entitled , “Bench and Bar.”