Another Zika Structure…and a Mea Culpa

From time to time, I make a mistake by failing to keep up with the primary scientific literature as closely as I should. If I had been on my grind, I would have noticed that another Zika structure was published in Science at around the same time as the Nature structure that I blogged about earlier. The group that put together this structure also compared the Zika particle to related viruses, this time choosing to focus on a region of the viral protein coat that is especially dissimilar to related viruses. The authors go on to suggest that this region of the coat may be involved in attaching to host cells, which could explain how transmissible Zika is compared to its relatives.

FiveThirtyEight, Elo, and Baseball

Now is as good a time as any to say how big of a FiveThirtyEight fan I am. Nate Silver’s site publishes the best data-driven stories on the web (NY Times’ Upshot is another good one to check out if you’re interested, but it has a decidedly more economic bent). Silver and his colleagues do an amazing job of bring data to bear on any question they can think up, and lucky for me that often includes baseball. If you want to see what I mean, take a look at the pieces that they published in the last 24 hours:

The Complete History of the MLB, an interactive, Elo rating-based way to compare teams throughout baseball history.

2016 MLB Predictions (along with an explanation) also uses Elo, but this time to project the remainder of each team’s performance this season. A nice touch is that this one updates after each game.

FiveThirtyEight has gotten some real mileage out of using Elo ratings to compare basketball and football teams, but this looks like the biggest project they have tackled using the rating system, working with data going back over 100 years.

I plan on keeping my eyes on the 2016 predictions for the rest of the season, and I have already had a ton of fun going back and comparing teams from 100 years ago. So far, it looks like my own Pittsburgh Pirates still haven’t managed to reach their apogee of the turn of the 20th century, even with the recent run of competitive teams. Adding to my frustration, the damnable Chicago Cubs have the highest stock that they’ve had in decades. Everyone gets their moment in the sun, I suppose.

Scientists Publish Zika Snapshot

(Image credit: Kostyuchenko et al. (2016) Nature.)

Update (4/27/2016): Science also published a Zika structure, drawing complementary conclusions from it. I thought it would be a good idea to post a small blurb about it here.

A group in Singapore published a structure of the Zika virus particle in Nature on Wednesday. Zika, which the Centers for Disease Control recently concluded is responsible for birth defects in children of infected mothers, has become a growing public health concern.

Victor A. Kostyuchenko and his colleagues at the Duke-National University of Singapore Medical School used cryo-electron microscopy to see the structure of Zika particles incubated at different temperatures. Importantly, the scientists found that the Zika particle is stable over a broader range of temperatures than other related viruses. On a practical level, this could mean that the virus is more transmissible than related viruses, and may be more challenging to control.

Virus particles are simply genetic material–either DNA or RNA–surrounded by a protein coat that protects and transports the genetic material. When the protein coat comes into contact with a susceptible cell, the virus can inject its genetic material into the host. The virus then uses its own genetic material to take over the cell’s own protein-producing machinery in order to produce more viruses. Eventually, those new viruses will be released and go on to infect other cells.

The authors note that their structural model can allow others to find drugs that may destabilize the virus. The hardiness of the Zika particle is almost certainly due to a tough protein coat, but certain drugs may make that protein coat more susceptible to degradation at higher temperatures or other harsh environments. All of this can be used to help stem the transmission of the virus.

For more information, check out the article at Nature: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vnfv/ncurrent/full/nature17994.html

Life Graph

biographI got bored in a genetics lecture a couple of days ago and started to doodle a graph of my perceived biology knowledge and reasoning over the course of my life. “Perceived biology knowledge” is in arbitrary units, and parts of my life are binned into “childhood,” “high school,” “college,” and “grad school” along the x-axis. One caveat is that I am perhaps too biased to reliably perceive my own knowledge and reasoning at any point in my life. Memory is also imperfect, so the early life data-points are probably hard to believe.

In spite of the problems with trying to turn this type of subjective introspection into something data-driven, the general trajectory of the plot and the relative magnitudes within the x-axis bins are likely reliable: the biphasic linear growth through childhood and high school seems reasonable, and the large gains going into college and grad school should be unsurprising to anyone who has had the pleasure of going through those experiences. In fact, one of the major conclusions that I draw from this thought experiment is the effect of disruptive events on my scientific reasoning and knowledge. I was learning a bit and growing throughout childhood and high school, but the real gains came from first going to college–and getting thrown into the deep end with rigorous science classes first semester–and the similarly disruptive first year of grad school. This seems to argue in favor of the conventional wisdom that getting out of one’s comfort zone is the only way to truly grow and improve. To extrapolate a little advice out of this: Don’t be afraid to be in over your head, I guess.