Wherever scientifics look, they found viruses
Fifty miles southeast of the Mexican city of Chihuahua is a dry, bare mountain range called Sierra de Naica. In 2000, miners worked their way down through a network of caves below the mountains. When they got a thousand feet underground, they found themselves in a place that seemed to belong to another world. They were standing in a chamber measuring thirty feet wide and ninety feet long. The ceiling, walls, and floor were lined with smooth-faced, translucent crystals of gypsum. Many caves contain crystals, but not like the ones in Sierra de Naica. They measured up to thirty-six feet long apiece and weighed as much as fifty-five tons. These were not crystals to hang from a necklace. These were crystals to climb like hills.
Since its discovery, a few scientists have been granted permission to visit this extraordinary chamber, known now as the Cave of Crystals. Juan Manuel Garcia-Ruiz, a geologist at the University of Granada, made the journey and figured out that the crystals formed when volcanoes began to form the mountains 26 million years ago. Subterranean chambers took shape and filled with hot mineral-laced water. The heat of the volcanic magma kept the water at around 136 degrees, the ideal temperature for the minerals to settle out of the water and form crystals. Somehow the water stayed at that perfect temperature for hundreds of thousands of years, allowing the crystals to grow to surreal sizes.
In 2009, another scientist, Curtis Suttle, paid a visit to the Cave of Crystals. Suttle and his colleagues scooped up water from the chamber's pools and brought it back to their laboratory at the University of British Columbia to analyze. When you consider Suttle's line of work, his journey might seem like a fool's errand. Suttle has no professional interest in crystals, or minerals, or any rocks at all for that matter. He studies viruses.
There are no people in the Cave of Crystals for the viruses to infect. There are not even any fish. The cave has been effectively cut off from the biology of the outside world for millions of years. Yet Suttle's trip was well worth the effort. After he prepared his samples of crystal water, he put them under a microscope and saw protein shells loaded with genes. Each drop of cave water may hold two hundred million viruses.
Just about wherever scientists look—deep within the earth, on grains of sand blown off of the Sahara Desert, under mile-thick layers of Antarctic ice—they find viruses. And when they look in familiar places, they find new ones. In 2009, Dana Willner, a biologist at San Diego State University, led a virus-hunting expedition into the human body. The scientists had ten people cough up sputum and spit it into a cup. Five of the people were sick with cystic fibrosis, and five were healthy. Out of that fluid, Willner and her team fished out fragments of DNA, which they compared to databases of the tens of millions of genes already known to science. Before Willner's study, the lungs of healthy people were believed to be sterile. But Willner and her colleagues discovered that all their subjects, sick and healthy alike, carried viral menageries in their chests. On average, each person had 174 species of viruses in the lungs. But only 10 percent of those species bore any close kinship to any virus ever found before. The other 90 percent were as strange as anything lurking in the Cave of Crystals.
Mariners had painstakingly mapped the coastlines of the continents. Geographers had translated these findings into charts and globes. Photographs of ...
It's the idea that people living close to nature tend to be noble. It's seeing all those sunsets that does it. You can't watch a sunset and then go off and set fire to your neighbor's tepee. Living close to nature is wonderful for your mental health.
But we can easily extend this hypothesis [that nature has beneficial effects on the physical, cognitive and emotional well-being of individuals] to the conservation of biodiversity. [Ecologists] refer to the extinction of the experience of nature, which they have mainly applied in urban areas. The idea is as follows: from generation to generation, young people live less and less in contact with nature (because there are fewer of them and because their lifestyles limit such contact), at the very moment they are building their identity. The part of their identity that integrates their intimate relationships with their natural environment would therefore diminish from generation to generation. Not because of a lack of education, but mainly because of a decline in opportunities and desires to experience nature without constraint, freely and in their own personal way.
The consequences of this decrease appear in adulthood: with a weaker environmental identity, they are less in demand for nature in their daily lives, they integrate it less in their actions. (...) But if we do not collectively take biodiversity into consideration in our lifestyles, then we will suffer.
An inefficient virus kills its host. A clever virus stays with it.