The Sponge that Turned the Tide Against AIDS: Save the Planet (2):
Posted by Richard Conniff on February 7, 2012
But let’s face it: Guys are not likely to run around with a “Save the rosy periwinkle” bumper sticker, are they? So maybe I should backtrack a little, to explain why protecting the natural world suddenly seemed to me to be much more than just a nice story: It’s what we eat, drink, and breathe. It’s how we keep ourselves alive. It is, in fact, a matter of life-and-death urgency for all of us.
Over beers one evening not long ago, I was complaining to a friend about a British opinion poll. Asked to define the word “biodiversity,” a lot of people thought it was a new brand of laundry soap. And these were Brits, meaning people who spent their formative years being spoon-fed nature by David Attenborough and the BBC.
In fact, biodiversity is the term for how many kinds of plants and animals live in a given area. It’s become shorthand for the health not just of local habitats, but of the entire planet, and the prognosis is not good. Because of human overpopulation, deforestation, climate change, and other factors, species are now disappearing at a rate last seen 65 million years ago, during the catastrophic era when the dinosaurs went extinct. Only this time, we get to play the dinosaurs.
“Too depressing,” my friend objected. “If you want to make guys care about biodiversity you have to tell them it will help them live longer, avoid going bald, and have better sex.” I rolled my eyes. But a vision flashed across my mind of a guy in a bar, weighing two big ideas, like ripe melons, in either hand: The future of life on Earth? Or sex tonight?
So I soon found myself accumulating instances of how the natural world does, in fact, makes guys’ lives better. I dubbed it “The Manhood Naturally File.” Or “Biodiversity builds better bodies 10 million ways.” (That’s a rough estimate of how many species may be living on earth right now). Exploring our unsuspected dependence on nature intrigued me because men in particular seems to suffer from a modern delusion—that we have become a sort of technological super-species, aloof from the natural world, safely ensconced in our houses and cars, and walled off by science from diseases, like polio and plague, which once routinely killed us.
Even when a terrifying new epidemic like AIDS springs up, we manage to bring it under control through what feels like the magic of technology. David W. Purdy, a former professional sports manager, was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 2002. The count of immune system T Cells in his blood was 49, down from a normal range above 800. His doctor started him on AZT, an anti-retroviral drug that sounds like the epitome of manmade laboratory medicines. Google it, and you will learn, not too helpfully, that it is “a nucleoside analog reverse-transcriptase inhibitor.”
“When we think about drugs,” says Purdy, “we envision a man with safety glasses and test tubes and microscopes, creating the drug in the lab, which isn’t true.”
These days AZT does in fact get produced synthetically in a laboratory-like setting. But it originally came from a sponge discovered on a Caribbean coral reef in 1949. So the real credit for turning HIV from a relentless killer into a manageable disease belongs not to technology but to the natural world. AZT and a cocktail of other anti-retrovirals also saved Purdy’s life, bringing his T cell count back up around 850.
In fact, about half the drugs we depend on for our modern sense of freedom from disease come directly from the natural world, or are produced synthetically based on natural models. That’s been true for almost all antibiotics, for instance, since Alexander Fleming’s 1928 discovery of penicillin from the same mold that produces the blue in blue cheese and the fuzz on rotting fruit. The antibiotic era, starting in World War II, has changed the world in ways we can now scarcely imagine. Maybe fungi and bacteria—the source of most antibiotics—aren’t what leap to mind when we imagine the wonders of nature. But without them, you and I might well be dead.