science | December 13, 2012

The Mighty Microbe: Nathan Wolfe's National Geographic Cover Story

"I’ve come to think of air as the medium for the next pandemic rather than the means to sustain life," Nathan Wolfe decrees in a new article in National Geographic. "But breathe easy: Most of the microbes in the air do us little or no harm, and some almost certainly do us good. The truth is, we still understand precious little about them." This has become the focus of Wolfe's recent work. Over the past 15 years he has spent his time "poking cotton swabs up human noses, pig snouts, bird beaks, and primate proboscises." He is the founder of the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative, and he travels around the world tracking and studying pandemics and viruses so he can crush the next outbreak—even before it starts.

He explains that despite how much we have learned about the planet, we have only recently learned about one of the most important organisms that exists in both our bodies and our environment. "We pride ourselves on having explored nearly every corner of this planet," he writes, "but behind our world is a shadow world of microbes—and they are often calling the shots." These microorganisms include bacteria—and the importance of understanding how these lifeforms exist and travel is vitally important to both our health and the health of the planet, Wolfe writes.  Because microbes are present in the very air we breathe and contain bacteria found in anything from sewage plants to hot springs, when you "take a breath," you are taking in a sample of the world, according to the "virus hunter."

What he has learned is that microbes function like a complex ecosystem in our bodies, meaning we should use "greater care in the use of antibiotics and, increasingly, targeted probiotic treatments that don’t just temporarily boost the numbers of one microbe or another but that shore up the whole population so that our health is improved." This isn't the end of the story on fighting disease however, and as he explains in the article and in his speeches—there is much more that we have yet to learn about the organisms that make up so much of life on Earth. He focuses on the ways that viruses spread, and explains that understanding how these organisms operate can help us prevent and adapt to emerging threats to our health.