Science in Motion: A Conversation with Emily Monosson

In a political age of "alternative facts," we need defenders of science to speak up now more than ever. We spoke with toxicologist Emily Monosson, author of Natural Defense: Enlisting Bugs and Germs to Protect our Food and Healthto discuss her new book, ecology, and the process of scientific innovation. Read her insights below, and don't forget to pick up your copy of Natural Defense for 20 percent off with the discount code 4DEFENSEScience has called it "a lively, provactive consideration of more ecologically balanced approaches to a disease-free future." Have more questions for Monosson? Share them in the comments below.

Your last book, Unnatural Selection, looked at how humans are driving the rapid evolution of pests and pathogens through the use of toxic chemicals. In what ways is Natural Defense a response to that book?

Overuse of chemicals leads to the problem of resistance, from antibiotic resistant infections to pesticide resistant insects. Natural Defense is the answer to that problem, the so-what-can-we-do-about it part. It explores how physicians and farmers can manage pests and pathogens while reducing their dependence on broad spectrum, relatively non-specific chemical solutions.

The number of alternative solutions is growing, which is really exciting. From viruses that attack antibiotic resistant bacteria like MRSA, to encouraging healthy microbial communities (or microbiomes—both in us and on the farm), to using plant and insect chemical “scents” to reduce infestation on the farm. There are also more controversial solutions, like engineering disease resistant crops so that growers can lessen their reliance on fungicides, or engineering vaccines against viruses or bacteria to boost efficacy.

The solutions featured in Natural Defense are grounded in ecology. What is driving the shift away from chemical dependence? Will a sustainable future be totally chemical-free?

We’ve had about 100 years of experience trying to hammer infections and pests into submission with “chemical cures,” and we are learning that while that worked for a while, it’s not ideal. In addition to resistance, there is the problem of collateral damage: if you wipe out all the benign bacteria, opportunistic infections like C. diff—a very difficult to treat, potentially lethal infection—can take hold. Plus, there are concerns about pesticide contamination in food and the environment and effects on non-target species.

While there is no doubt we have benefitted from chemicals, we can do even better if we take a more ecological approach to managing disease. Part of this approach is to employ natural enemies of pests and pathogens. Some options, like mating disruption in crop-destroying moths, can reduce or even eliminate the need for pesticides. In medicine, phage therapy can employ viruses to eradicate bacterial infections—a strategy that has proven particularly useful for specific antibiotic resistant infections. We may still need our conventional chemicals, but more ecological approaches combined with better detection and prevention can help to reduce our dependence on conventional pesticides and antibiotics. 

You describe Natural Defense as a book of solutions, but acknowledge that some technologies featured in the book may fail. What is the value in featuring innovations that are not yet proven? Are scientific solutions ever truly “finished”?

Science is a process. It constantly builds upon earlier research. For every successful solution there were likely many more failures. This is important for all of us to understand. We’re used to seeing headlines about miracle cures, but there are very few miracles. Instead, most treatments trudges along, getting better or refined. If one strategy doesn’t work, maybe there is a part that is salvageable, or that inspires a scientist to try something different. Many of the solutions I describe in Natural Defense build upon earlier work to understand bacteria, or viruses, or soil communities, or the human microbiome. We need to celebrate and support this idea of science in motion, and the scientists who are doing this work, working towards solutions.

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Antibiotic resistance tests: Bacteria are streaked on dishes with white antibiotic impregnated disks. Clear rings, such as those on the left, show that bacteria have not grown—indicating that the bacteria are not resistant. By Dr Graham Beards at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

What’s the coolest technology you discovered while researching the book?

It’s hard to choose, but I would say either the machine learning cell-phone app that may someday diagnose plant disease anywhere in the world in seconds; or genetic sequencing using nanopore technology that enables researchers and maybe someday physicians and farmers to diagnose infection, right down to a particular strain in minutes.

In addition to interviewing scientists at the forefront of cutting edge technologies, you spoke with a number of non-scientists, including parents and farmers. What did you learn from these conversations? Why was it important to weave their voices into the book?

It was important to interview these people because they are the ones most directly impacted by problems and solutions. People with infections that are not responding to available antibiotics need options. Likewise growers, particularly those who want to use less chemicals on their farms (whether because they’re going organic or are trying to reduce costs or are dealing with resistance) are the ones who will be using these solutions. This is their livelihood; and in many places in the world, this is their food. If the crops are destroyed by disease or insects, that’s a big problem. Including these voices means that the science can’t just be “oh cool” pie-in-the-sky kind of stuff. It needs to be feasible. It needs, eventually, to work.

In the book, you look at a particular solution’s application to health care and its application to agriculture in alternating chapters. What is the value in considering human and agricultural health together? What is the danger in examining them in isolation?

One thing I enjoy is pulling together science or research that tends to reside in separate “boxes,” whether that means putting evolution and toxicology together (as I do in my earlier books) or putting medicine and agriculture together (as I do in this book). Scientists can become so focused in their own field (which is not a bad thing!), but it’s not always easy to look around and think about where else their research may apply or what other techniques or concepts might apply to their work. Since I’m not working in a research lab, I hope this can be my contribution to the sciences.

In the case of Natural Defense, controlling viruses, bacteria, fungi, and microbial infections is based in the same ecology, whether we are concerned about our kids or a field of strawberries. Sometimes the solutions are the same. Viruses that attack bacteria (phages) are used in the food industry and in human medicine. Likewise using bacterial proteins called bacteriocins are used to keep food safe and may one day be used to cure human infections. Rapid DNA analysis for diagnostics on the farm and in the hospital—it’s the same technology. And if an app can diagnose plant disease based on a photo, why not apply that to problems like skin cancers?

Powdery mildew.JPG
Powdery mildew, a biotrophic fungus Pollinator at the English language WikipediaNatural Defense explores a cellphone app that holds promise for rapidly diagnosing plant disease.


Is there anything you found in the course of researching and writing this book that surprised you?

I think the most surprising thing I found was the common problem of getting a good product to market. It didn’t matter if the researcher was working on human infection or vaccines or how to apply beneficial bacteria on the farm. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of a promising new technique, but then comes the regulatory hoops. Regulations are important – a product needs to be safe and effective – but for individual scientists, or small start-ups working on solutions, the process of approval can be costly. Some researchers talked about the role of selling or working with big pharma or the agro-chemical industry as a necessary step, because that was one way to get the product to market. On the other hand, with GMO in particular, some developers are working to ensure the technology is not “owned” by corporate interests. So, there is a lot more to this than just the science.

What do you hope readers take away from this book?

Hope! When it comes to managing pests and pathogens I hope readers are excited by some of these stories and that advances in both technology and ecology are leading to new ways of controlling diseases and pests that are better for us and the environment. I think it’s also important for readers to realize that solutions are not black or white: a farmer may need to use pesticides in some cases, just as physicians may need to use antibiotics. We now realize we can’t or shouldn’t try to hammer pests or pathogens into oblivion with chemicals, but we can be smarter about how we manage them.