Virus is a noun that typically keeps bad company: the AIDS virus, the Zika virus, dengue, influenza. Perhaps because of this, when it abandons the work of being a villain and becomes (a candidate for) hero, that microscopic particle takes on another name. Bacteriophages, or simply phages, are viruses capable of identifying and destroying specific bacteria, and therefore can represent an alternate treatment option to the use of antibiotics. In order to find and identify them, and thus do the work of basic science that can lead to innovative applications in biotechnology, we need to go where the bacteria are–namely, in the composting heap of the São Paulo Zoo. The intriguing account is the subject of this issue’s cover story that also describes an approach known as synthetic biology, which involves programming DNA as if it were computer code. While synthetic biology is based on the greatest advances in science, the use of phages represents the harnessing of some of the most fundamental (and truthfully, most efficient) evolutionary mechanisms there are.
In returning to its best-known role, the HPV virus and a group that is quite aggressive, the arboviruses, which includes the Zika virus, are also found in this issue. One potential piece of good news comes from recent studies published about the Zika virus, an epidemic this magazine has covered systematically since its 2015 outbreak. The suspicion that humans and monkeys contaminated by the dengue virus might present more severe cases of Zika has not been confirmed, suggesting just the opposite: by becoming infected with Zika after having had dengue, a patient could present a less severe case of the disease. In that case, the previous infection by the dengue virus would have the effect of attenuating the Zika virus.
U.S. physician Robert Tesh has been studying the global diversity of the arboviruses–those that like Zika and dengue, are transmitted by mosquitos and ticks, among other arthropods–for five decades, several of which have been spent as the head of the WHO’s World Reference Center for Emerging Viruses and Arboviruses.
In Brazil, in an interview with the magazine, Tesh appeared skeptical with regard to the possibility of eradicating the Aedes Aegypti mosquito and the pathogenic viruses it transmits. The versatility of the transmitter and the viruses are quite a match for any attempt at human interference. Throughout his career, the virologist has made numerous trips to Brazil and its neighbors to collect samples of the virus, contributing to the fact that the largest number of arboviruses known today originate in South America.
Latin America is the topic of the interview with historian Maria Ligia Prado, who has also spent nearly five decades studying the region’s history and interpretations of its development. The researcher believes Latin America’s identity, an issue that has plagued the region since it gained independence, is a sensitive topic. It is an intellectual construct, but is loaded with emotion and affects the lives and choices of its peoples, and it must not be ignored. The building of an identity, whatever it may be, easily obscures contradictions, allowing the “other” to be viewed as the enemy. The antidote, according to Maria Ligia, is critical thinking.