May 29, 2020

Dispatch 6: Strange Times

Covid has disrupted the most basic routines of our days and nights. But in the middle of a conversation about how to fight the virus, we find a place impervious to the stalled plans and frenetic demands of the outside world. It’s a very different kind of front line, where urgent work means moving slow, and time is marked out in tiny pre-planned steps. Then, on a walk through the woods, we consider how the tempo of our lives affects our minds and discover how the beats of biology shape our bodies.

This episode was produced with help from Molly Webster and Tracie Hunte.

Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate 

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[RADIOLAB INTRO]

 

JAD ABUMRAD: Hey, it's Jad. Radiolab. This is dispatch number six.

 

MOLLY WEBSTER: Okay. Calling. I'm initiating the call.

 

JAD: Okay.

 

[RINGING]

 

JAD: Hi, can I speak to Mark, please?

 

MARK DENISON: This is he. Hello, hello.

 

JAD: Hi, Mark. This is Jad. And I'm also here with Molly from -- from Radiolab.

 

MOLLY: Hi, Mark.

 

MARK DENISON: Molly, nice to meet you.

 

MOLLY: Hi.

 

JAD: Thanks for taking the time. We're ...

 

JAD: Okay, as I mentioned last week, we've all been thinking about time these days. And in this dispatch, two completely unexpected time wormholes that I fell into while reporting about the coronavirus. And just trying to get through this great pause that we're all in. The first -- first wormhole deals with a guy as much as anyone has really helped us understand the enemy that we're up against. His name is Mark Denison, he works at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.

 

JAD: Well, all right. Thank you again for making the time. It's super appreciated.

 

MARK DENISON: Yeah.

 

JAD: So yeah, you know, we just want to ask you some questions about your background, questions about the drug. I got Molly to come on because Molly is much smarter about these kinds of topic areas than I am, and she's been following your work as well. So I guess ...

 

MARK DENISON: Well, it's just those words alone, "We've been following your work." Are, like, words I just have never heard before.

 

MOLLY: You are having, like, a bit of a rock star moment, yeah?

 

MARK DENISON: Yeah. Well, it's not my goal. Definitely not my goal. But ...

 

MOLLY: Yeah.

 

MARK DENISON: You know, it has been a -- it has been a sort of a little bit of a down the rabbit hole through the looking glass, that sort of experience.

 

JAD: What makes the moment so looking glass-y for Mark is that he's been studying coronaviruses for 30 years. This thing that we've all just woken up to, which is actually a very ancient virus by the way, his lab has been studying it for three decades, which in human corona time feels like an epoch. His lab was the one that figured out one of the really novel parts of the coronavirus family, which is that they've got a built-in fact-checker that allows them to fact-check the copies that they make of themselves as they get made, which is what has allowed them to grow big and become complex. His lab figured that out in 2007. Seven years ago, they figured out how to trick that fact-checker and disrupt the virus's ability to make copies of itself, which has led to a drug ...

 

[NEWS CLIP: This may be the most sought-after drug on our pandemic-ridden planet.]

 

JAD: ... you've probably heard of.

 

[NEWS CLIP: The experimental antiviral drug ...]

 

[NEWS CLIP: ... called Remdesivir.]

 

[NEWS CLIP: Remdesivir.]

 

[NEWS CLIP: Remdesivir.]

 

[NEWS CLIP: Remdesivir.]

 

[NEWS CLIP: Remdesivir.]

 

[NEWS CLIP: The FDA expected to grant emergency approval of the drug. Is this the hope so many have been waiting for?]

 

JAD: Remdesivir in preliminary data has been found to shorten recovery times from COVID.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Anthony Fauci: A significant positive effect.]

 

JAD: Under certain circumstances, it shortened hospital stays by up to four days.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Anthony Fauci: This will be the standard of care.]

 

MARK DENISON: I've studied it for seven years. I know it's really good at killing coronaviruses. In every coronavirus we've tested in, every animal we've tested, every aspect of this says, this is good, this is good, this is good.

 

JAD: But he says right now, the drug ...

 

MARK DENISON: It's an IV drug, and so it can only be given to people in the hospital.

 

JAD: You have to be in the hospital to get it. And if that's the case, you're probably already sick. So we started talking about all this and it quickly became clear that this guy who's been studying this ancient virus for 30 years, it's like he's been plucked out of obscurity and his sense of time has had to radically change. All of a sudden he's under a lot of pressure, people are pushing for results. His lab at Vanderbilt, was one of the few facilities in the world that can work with the virus, so he's fielding calls from dozens and dozens of scientists and companies who are like, "Hey, I've got this compound. Can you test it against the virus? I've got a potential vaccine. We need your help running this experiment, 'cause we don't know how to do it."

 

MARK DENISON: You know, yes, we feel the pressure.

 

JAD: It's like the world is suddenly asking him to go way faster than he thinks he can go.

 

MARK DENISON: I understand this is very different. This is outside of any scope of anything any of us have ever experienced in our lives. But a couple things. One is -- is I've sort of been telling my people over and over again, this is too urgent to go fast.

 

JAD: Why wouldn't you say it's so urgent that we have to go fast?

 

MARK DENISON: No, I mean for multiple reasons.

 

JAD: For one, he says, just there's some basic limits. Like, if you're experimenting with the virus in the lab, you've got to grow it in the lab and that takes time.

 

MARK DENISON: You know, it takes two days or three days in culture to grow. If you're testing it with a drug it may take longer, you know? The "What have you done today?" is -- is really it has to be "What have you done this week and this month?" Which is sort of counter to the -- the speed, the need for speed. And I just -- I just tell people that I will never make them accelerate their work to match a deadline that the virus biology won't allow. Yeah, so you're not just kind of going in and doing experiments.

 

JAD: But then we start talking more about the lab itself, the BSL-3, biosafety level 3 lab, which he runs at Vanderbilt University. This is where they do the experiments on these dangerous pathogens. It took him two years to just set up the lab to begin with because it's got to be built in exactly the right way with the right air condition units that always suck air in a certain direction, and the right rooms within rooms within rooms to make sure everything is always contained inside. It's one of the most regulated places on Earth. And he says when you are in that kind of space, it forces you into a completely different time-flow.

 

MARK DENISON: Work at BSL-3 is hyper-methodical. You do one thing at a time. Like, you take a flask and if you open the -- you open -- you don't do anything with your hip or your elbow or your other hand or your head. You know, you do everything with an intentionality that's very -- it's sort of anti, really, how we train to kind of move forward fast and do lots of things in a day. You take a flask out, you move it to the incubator, you set it down, you go back and you close the incubator. Everything is written down. You follow the guidelines, you follow them one step at a time. Your phones -- you can't answer a phone. You can't respond to an email. The world sort of comes to a stop while you're working in there.

 

JAD: And you have to do that because it's so dangerous?

 

MARK DENISON: Yeah. No one can tell you to speed up when you're in the BSL-3.

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS: You said about eight inches from my mouth, right? Should I just hold it like that?

 

MARK DENISON: No one can tell you go fast.

 

JAD: Maybe just a little closer to your mouth?

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS: Okay.

 

JAD: There was something about the way Mark talked about the BSL-3, the way people have to move and operate in that place, that made me want to talk to someone from his lab who worked there.

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS: My first name is Andrea. My last name is Dutch. It's PRUIJSSERS, which nobody can pronounce here. My husband always says, "Trousers with a P instead of a T.' So PRUIJSSERS.

 

JAD: And what do you do at the lab?

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS: I direct the coronavirus antiviral research program.

 

JAD: What's an average day like? Can you walk us through it?

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS: Yeah. Yeah. So first of all, we usually -- we prepare a lot outside the room, because everything that goes into the room can never come out. I leave a note on my door that I'm going to the BSL-3 and what time I'm going there, because if I'm not back in about six hours somebody needs to come check on me.

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS TAPE: All right, it's Monday morning. I am walking to the BSL-3.

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS: Walk down the hall with our cart.

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS TAPE: I got my stuff loaded onto a cart.

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS: With our supplies.

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS TAPE: Spent most of the morning making the dilutions, this drug that I'm testing against SARS COVID-2. And I'm ready now.

 

MOLLY: Do you ever get scared of the viruses you work with?

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS: When we got that shipment of SARS COVID-2, so the current coronavirus from the CDC, I did shake a little bit opening that box. You know, it was -- it was a big deal. When I approached -- I can't really go into too much details.

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS TAPE: I'm here now.

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS: Can't tell you where the BSL-3 is because it's about a security issue.

 

JAD: Does your husband know where it is?

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS: He does not. No, absolutely not. He doesn't need to know.

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS TAPE: Letting myself in. Now I'm in the ante room, which is where I get dressed and put on my PPE.

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS: And so in the ante room, we take street clothes off, cover ourself in Tyvek head-to-toe.

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS TAPE: I'm putting on gloves.

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS: We wear two pairs of gloves.

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS TAPE: Second pair of gloves. And then I'm going to put on my clapper, which is my respirator. Turning it on now.

 

MOLLY: Wow, you're totally enclosed.

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS: Which I like.

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS TAPE: This is the sign that it's working correctly.

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS: I feel kind of like an astronaut when all that's said and done. So then once I'm all suited up ...

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS TAPE: Now I'm ready to go in.

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS: I -- I let myself in, and then -- and then I start my work. I set up my workspace.

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS TAPE: All right, I'm gonna take the blowers out of the freezer right now. This is SARS COVID-2. It's in a small tube.

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS: I check if there are any lights flashing. I need to be aware of everything that goes on around me because we have redundant safety mechanisms, but if they are failing I need to know about that.

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS TAPE: And I'm going to put it in the micro-centrifuge, the centrifuges for a little bit.

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS: It's very important that you're always aware of where you are. Is there somebody behind me? Is there someone next to me? Who might I potentially bump into?

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS TAPE: All right. So that's the sound of the micro-centrifuge being done. I'm going to take it out now and set up my assay. I'm gonna dilute the virus further.

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS: You move your head, you look around, you're always aware of where you are, whose path you might be blocking. We're bigger than we normally are because we wear all that equipment.

 

MOLLY: Oh, yeah.

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS TAPE: All right, I've infected these cells with virus now, and now I'm gonna let it incubate for about half an hour.

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS: Always know where your hands are. Every time you touch a tube, there might be a little bit of virus on our gloves, so we always have to be aware of what we touch and what order we touch it in.

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS TAPE: All right. Now I'm going to qualify the number of infectious viral particles in a mixture.

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS: So whenever we open a tube of virus, it's inside of our safety cabinet, you draw up some volume, you put the volume in the next tube that's already open because I don't want to have to worry about having the liquid in my pipette tip and then have to open the tube because it could create aerosols. We're very concerned about aerosols, which are tiny little droplets that could land on other things and they could contaminate other things.

 

MOLLY: Wow!

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS: So we put it in the tube and then we move it kind of in the same line, in the same direction.

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS TAPE: Basically, what I'm doing here is looking at a dense sheets of cells.

 

JAD: Andrea says just to be allowed to walk in the room it takes six months of training.

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS: We have all kinds of protocols for everything. Everything is very protocol-driven.

 

JAD: To learn all the rules ...

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS: How to move ...

 

JAD: ... how to do things in a precise order.

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS: One thing at a time, methodically.

 

JAD: At first, she says, it's kind of stressful, but then a funny thing happens. There comes a point where the thoughts in your mind just settle.

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS: It's -- it's kind of a place of zen. Because you're focused, you're alert, I'm just in the now. My heart rate lowers. I don't have many thoughts. In fact, it's not a good idea to think about other things. The only thing I can do is -- is listen to the music, and the music is sometimes inspiring me to kind of bob my head a little bit without moving my hands involuntarily, of course.

 

MOLLY: In the zen space, do you -- I'm wondering what your relationship with time is?

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS: It's funny, because the clocks in there keep dying. I think it's something about the -- the airflow and the battery keeps corroding. So ...

 

JAD: Oh my God, time doesn't work in there!

 

MOLLY: [laughs]

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS: Sorry? What?

 

JAD: Time doesn't work in the BSL-3.

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS: Yeah, exactly. I do lose time. You have to really find your zen space. I say that because when you're in a respirator with your head and there's an eyelash that falls in your eye, there's nothing you can do about it.

 

MOLLY: Oh, wow!

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS: Or there's a lock of hair just poking in your eye every -- every few seconds.

 

JAD: What do you do in that situation?

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS: I think it's a Buddhist principle, kind of acknowledge it. I just tell myself, "Yeah, this is really annoying. There's nothing I can do about it. So I'll just focus on my work."

 

MARK DENISON: It's a profound, profound mindfulness.

 

MOLLY: It is funny, because I was saying to Jad at one point. I was like, it's like we've -- when you started describing the lab earlier in the conversation, it reminded me of this feeling that I've had of, like, it feels like coronavirus has asked us all to be very present.

 

MARK DENISON: Yeah.

 

MOLLY: Like, there's really no future.

 

MARK DENISON: Yeah.

 

MOLLY: That we're planning for.

 

MARK DENISON: Yeah.

 

JAD: The way Mark puts it, coronavirus has its own time. It's ancient. It's been around for millions of years circulating in bats, now it's in us. And how we feel about that, whether we think the pandemic is over and we can all go back to our lives, or whether we think it's only the end of the first part or whatever, doesn't really matter because it's got its own time.

 

MARK DENISON: This gets to kind of a -- it feels almost like an existential kind of a thing as well, right? So viruses don't care, and if I was going to have a title of an article it's that I don't care. Virus: I don't care. I don't care at all. And I don't have thoughts, I don't have feelings. You can project them on me if you want to, but all I do is find another host and I get into their cells and I replicate. Let's say there's even -- there's even a half a billion people that have been infected, let's really project out. Well, there's, you know, 7.2 who haven't been. This is a brand new virus in humans. This virus has never been humans before. I can anthropomorphize again, thinking about it. "Okay, well I can go here. I can go in this tissue." Oh, I'm doing anthropomorphism again. The virus is exploring it, and what it's telling us, it's telling us about the difference in children and adults. It's telling us about the difference between pretty old people to really old people. It's telling us about our immune system. But outside the virology, it's also telling us about the fragility of the global organism of humans, being our political and economic and social, financial, cultural systems and habits, that those are all being probed by the virus as well. And we're learning about how the -- how we're all interweaved and interleaved, because it's breaking each of those parts and making us view them individually.

 

JAD: You know what's weird? It just occurred to me. Like, there's been this inversion. We're now living in the place where you work every day.

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS: Yes. [laughs]

 

JAD: We're all living in the BSL-3, basically.

 

ANDREA PRUIJSSERS: Without protection. [laughs]

 

MOLLY: [laughs] Let me reiterate, without protection.

 

JAD: Without protection.

 

JAD: Coming up, one more time wormhole, totally different situation, totally different location. That's after the break.



JAD: Science reporting on Radiolab is supported in part by Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone with the process of science.

 

JAD: I’m Jad Abumrad, this is Radiolab. We’re back. Okay, BSL-3 time, we did that. Now for the second chapter: Cow Time. Some context, so this began in conversation with Molly, Molly Webster, she had been thinking a lot about all of these ideas and was sort of rolling them around.

 

MOLLY: I’ve just had so many conversations with people about time in this moment. And, like, everyone trying to, I don't know, understand it or grapple with it. Or, like, somehow face it down in a way that they never have before. Like, I can only describe it as like a slipperiness, like, you can’t quite hold on.

 

JAD: Mm-hmm.

 

JAD: As we were talking ...

 

JAD: Can I tell you where my mind goes?

 

MOLLY: Yeah.

 

JAD: I told her a story about something that had just happened a couple days before.

 

JAD: Okay, so my family and I went to this farm that’s not too far from where we’re staying right now.

 

MOLLY: Mm-hmm.

 

JAD: Because all the parks were closed, there was nothing to do with the kids. So a friend of ours was like, "Oh, I know somebody who owns a farm. It’s very close to you."

 

MOLLY: Mm-hmm.

 

JAD: "You should just go there and walk around. She’d be totally cool with it."

 

JAD TAPE: Henry the hawk?

 

AMIL ABUMRAD TAPE: Yeah.

 

JAD TAPE: Jeff? [laughs] Jeff the hawk.

 

JAD: So the four of us went there.

 

JAD TAPE: Great moos!

 

JAD: I should say this was in Lebanon, Tennessee, appropriately enough. Huge farm. Cows, goats, donkeys, sheeps, they’re all kinda milling around. No fences. And ...

 

JAD TAPE: Yeah, that’s a good question, Amil.

 

JAD: I was walking next to Amil, my 10 year old.

 

JAD TAPE: If time is actually frozen, how come it doesn’t feel frozen to us?

 

JAD: And he was asking all these questions about space/time.

 

AMIL ABUMRAD TAPE: Here’s another question.

 

JAD TAPE: Yeah.

 

AMIL ABUMRAD TAPE: If time truly is a hologram ...

 

JAD: I think he had just watched a PBS show about this.

 

AMIL ABUMRAD TAPE: Holograms can rewind themselves.

 

JAD TAPE: True.

 

AMIL ABUMRAD TAPE: How come ...

 

JAD: He was like, "Why does time only go in one direction? Does time ever end?" It felt like he was processing some stuff about this moment, maybe. So I just asked him.

 

JAD TAPE: Hey, I have a more ordinary question for you.

 

AMIL ABUMRAD TAPE: Sure.

 

JAD TAPE: How has time felt over this pause, or whatever we call it, where we had to go and start staying at home, and move to Nashville and stuff? Has it felt like it’s gone faster, has it felt like it’s gone slower? Or does it feel normal?

 

AMIL ABUMRAD TAPE: It feels like -- hmm. Hold on, I have to think this through. Well like, when we’re at home, we’re really used to there. So, like, time goes fast for us because, like, we’re used to at home. But, like, when we’re here time goes slower basically because, like, we don’t know this place at all.

 

JAD TAPE: Interesting. Yeah, I think you’re right.

 

MOLLY: He said that?

 

JAD: Yeah.

 

MOLLY: Wow. Profound little bugger.

 

AMIL ABUMRAD TAPE: As soon as we got to Nashville ...

 

JAD TAPE: Yeah.

 

JAD: So he kept riffing on this as we walked across this open meadow, past a whole group of donkeys. Past some sheep. And then we got through the clearing and entered these woods which stretched for about two miles behind the farm.

 

JAD TAPE: Well, dragonflies eat the mosquitoes, I think.

 

AMIL ABUMRAD TAPE: Yeah, they do.

 

JAD TAPE: Whatever eats mosquitoes is a friend of mine.

 

AMIL ABUMRAD TAPE: Frogs.

 

JAD TAPE: Go frogs!

 

AMIL ABUMRAD TAPE: And spiders.

 

JAD TAPE: Love the spiders.

 

JAD: So we’re about quarter mile into the woods, I think. When ...

 

JAD TAPE: I do love -- ooh, wow! Check this out.

 

AMIL ABUMRAD TAPE: Whoa.

 

JAD TAPE: Whoa. It’s like a whole ...

 

JAD: When right there on the ground was this very big, very dead cow. Just a skeleton, but ...

 

AMIL ABUMRAD TAPE: Oh my God!

 

JAD: Completely intact.

 

MOLLY: Hmm.

 

AMIL ABUMRAD TAPE: That’s cool.

 

JAD TAPE: Yeah. Wow.

 

JAD: The skeleton was on its back, legs pointed up. Birds hadn’t scattered the bones, but the ants had cleaned it, so there was no flesh.

 

AMIL ABUMRAD TAPE: That’s a cow, right?

 

JAD TAPE: That is definitely a cow.

 

AMIL ABUMRAD TAPE: Huh.

 

JAD: We just stood there and looked down at it.

 

JAD TAPE: It’s funny, you know it’s like your jido broke five of his ribs, look at how many ribs they have.

 

AMIL ABUMRAD TAPE: They have a million.

 

JAD: Then we noticed that next to the big cow skeleton ...

 

JAD TAPE: Oh my God. A little baby skull. A baby cow.

 

AMIL ABUMRAD TAPE: Can I have it?

 

JAD TAPE: Well, I don’t think your mom would like it if you took that. It’s so cool though. Wow!

 

AMIL ABUMRAD TAPE: You could take a picture of it.

 

JAD TAPE: What do you think happened to that little baby?

 

AMIL ABUMRAD TAPE: I don’t know. Hold on, lemme turn it over. Oh, wow.

 

JAD TAPE: Oh my God, it’s tiny. Poor thing.

 

JAD: So we were like, what happened here? Was there some kind of birth that didn’t go right?

 

AMIL ABUMRAD TAPE: He looks creepy, though.

 

JAD TAPE: Yeah.

 

AMIL ABUMRAD TAPE: Like, his eye socket.

 

JAD: But what was interesting was that he kept coming back to this question of like ...

 

AMIL ABUMRAD TAPE: Is that even a cow?

 

JAD TAPE: Yeah.

 

JAD: Are we sure that’s a cow? Because, you know, skeletons all look alike.

 

JAD TAPE: It’s funny though, but have you ever seen a human skull?

 

AMIL ABUMRAD TAPE: Oh, I’ve seen that. Those are the weirdest thing I’ve seen.

 

JAD TAPE: They don’t look that different, do they?

 

AMIL ABUMRAD TAPE: Well, a cow’s skull is more like, imagine like a human but, like, the head would go down and then they bring the mouth forward and ...

 

JAD: We started talking about design. Like, if you take a human skull, smush it, pull the mouth out, slope the nose? Cow. Which caused him to ask -- and I didn’t record this part, unfortunately -- "Why are they so similar?" Here’s where you start to get to the time bit. Because I started trying to tell him about this idea that I’d read about 15 years ago, one of my favorite ideas ever.

 

SEAN CARROLL: It looks like that’s working. I think -- I wanna see that it’s rolling. I’m getting a meter, but why is it not -- oh no, no. We’re rolling.

 

JAD TAPE: I learned about this idea from a guy named Sean Carroll, biologist.

 

SEAN CARROLL: I'm Sean B. Carroll, Professor of Biology at the University of Maryland.

 

JAD: Okay, so Sean wrote a book about 15 years ago called Endless Forms Most Beautiful. Incredible book. And in that book, he tells the story of some research that he was involved in. Back in the 1980s ...

 

SEAN CARROLL: 1983, 1984.

 

JAD: He and his colleagues were working with some fruit flies, and they discovered these genes.

 

SEAN CARROLL: We discovered these genes because messing with them, essentially inducing mutations in them, had such spectacular effects. For example ...

 

JAD: They’d mess with one gene. Just one gene.

 

SEAN CARROLL: Legs would appear on top of the head. Or an extra pair of wings would form. And if out of 17,000 fruit fly genes, one mutation can eliminate an eye, or one mutation can put legs where antennae used to be, you can imagine geneticists said, "What the heck is that gene? Let’s go find out."

 

JAD: What they would eventually determine is that there were certain genes within the fly that acted as kind of master builders. Each one would turn on a whole bunch of other genes, and the end result would be a limb. Or a wing. Or an antenna. A whole body part. Which was cool. But it was just flies.

 

SEAN CARROLL: But within a year, a couple teams of biologists discovered that these genes existed not only in fruit flies, but in almost every other kind of animal.

 

JAD: Worms, whales, elephants, stick-bugs, mice.

 

SEAN CARROLL: Humans.

 

JAD: All of these different creatures seemed to have the same set, the same master toolkit of these little genes.

 

SEAN CARROLL: That represents about 500-million years of animal evolution. And to see those genes pretty much in similar arrangements to each other across the animal kingdom blew everyone’s mind.

 

JAD: Yeah.

 

SEAN CARROLL: Everyone’s mind. I don’t know anyone who could have claimed they saw that coming. We’ve learned from looking at creatures from the outside. We look at their anatomy and we say, "Okay, this is a mouse over here, an elephant over here, a fly here, a worm." Externally, they just look, you know, incredibly different. But to find out that there are genes building those bodies that they all have in common, was a stunning discovery.

 

JAD: And the reason we all have these master toolkit genes, that’s because we all came from the same creature way back in the beginning.

 

SEAN CARROLL: Right.

 

JAD: And these genes have been preserved.

 

SEAN CARROLL: Right.

 

JAD: And how do you wrap your mind around that? That the thing that builds the butterfly wing could be the same thing that builds my finger.

 

SEAN CARROLL: Well, I think you just start from the observation that you and I and a lot of other animals are built of repeating parts.

 

AMIL ABUMRAD TAPE: Wait, wait. I think all of these are ribs too.

 

SEAN CARROLL: Your rib cage, with all the different kind of ribs.

 

JAD TAPE: These right here? One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen.

 

SEAN CARROLL: Your fingers, your digits ...

 

TEJ ABUMRAD TAPE: Why are our fingers different lengths?

 

JAD TAPE: That's a very good question, Tej.

 

SEAN CARROLL: ... which are slightly different variations on the same theme. Your toes are the same sort of way.

 

AMIL ABUMRAD TAPE: We could collect a hoof.

 

JAD: You wanna take a hoof?

 

AMIL ABUMRAD TAPE: I wonder what it'd be like having hoofs and no fingers.

 

SEAN CARROLL: Your spinal column with the vertebrae, where they’re, you know, slightly different from your neck down to your lower back. What’d be great was to have a snake skeleton right next to that cow, because there you’d see maybe two or three hundred vertebrae with ribs coming off of them, right? If it was a good-sized snake. And you understand, "Oh okay, so that snake is mostly a little head and a little tail with all of these ribs." You can build, you know, so many variations on the same theme.

 

JAD: So you’re saying one way to understand why so many different creatures can be made with so few genes that we all share, is that we’re all basically made of legos.

 

SEAN CARROLL: That’s right. That’s right.

 

AMIL ABUMRAD TAPE: It also makes sense why animals have basically the same parts of bodies -- they have the same body parts as us.

 

JAD: It -- God, it’s such a crazy idea. So, okay here’s ...

 

SEAN CARROLL: It is! It’s a crazy idea. But if you just kind of frame the question a different way, which is: if these bodybuilding genes are so similar, how do you make different kinds of animals? And that’s where a lot of the research then turned.

 

JAD: And the picture that started to emerge is that if so many creatures share the same set of master genes, well it’s obviously about how those genes are used.

 

SEAN CARROLL: When you turn them on, how long they stay on, when you turn them off.

 

JAD: And tempo. For example, if you have a gene that makes the repeating segments of a spinal column in humans and it is the same gene that does that in a giraffe, well in a human there will be a switch that goes like this: on ... off. But in the giraffe, it goes like this: on ......... off. In other words, one of the big differences that explains the diversity of animals on this planet -- and this is what we talked about in front of that cow -- is time, these simple differences in time.

 

AMIL ABUMRAD TAPE: What are they called?

 

JAD TAPE: They’re called hox genes.

 

AMIL ABUMRAD TAPE: Yeah the hox genes, so the hox genes can -- I guess you could say they separate animals by their rhythms.

 

JAD TAPE: Yeah.

 

AMIL ABUMRAD TAPE: I mean, it doesn't really separate them because then we wouldn’t be able to see these animals. I guess the way they construct us is all about rhythm.

 

JAD TAPE: Yeah, it’s all about timing and rhythm, right?

 

AMIL ABUMRAD TAPE: Mm-hmm.

 

JAD TAPE: I think that’s one of the coolest ideas I’ve ever heard. Don’t you?

 

AMIL ABUMRAD TAPE: Yeah. For some reason it’s more understandable than space/time.

 

JAD TAPE: Yeah, for sure. Space/time, I don’t think I’ll ever wrap my head around that.

 

AMIL ABUMRAD TAPE: I mean like, seriously.

 

JAD TAPE: Okay. Let’s get going.

 

AMIL ABUMRAD TAPE: I wish I got to keep one of the bones.

 

JAD TAPE: Yeah.

 

AMIL ABUMRAD TAPE: They're cool.

 

MOLLY: Like, there is something so interesting to think about how little changes of time create totally different endpoints.

 

JAD: Yeah.

 

MOLLY: You know, so like, a moment of time created a cow. The same thing with a different moment of time created a Jad. The same thing with a different moment of time created a tadpole. And then so you’re like, "What does this change in time -- like, what will it create?"

 

JAD: Yeah.

 

MOLLY: Yeah, how -- how will this moment of time essentially pressure humans to evolve in a different way?

 

JAD: Yeah.

 

AMIL ABUMRAD TAPE: The planets would be dead by now.

 

KARLA MURTHY TAPE: Do you see how it’s changed out here, guys? And now it’s, like, more orange and yellow?

 

JAD TAPE: Yeah.

 

KARLA MURTHY TAPE: Than it was just not even that long ago?

 

JAD TAPE: Do you think those cows will let us come close?

 

AMIL ABUMRAD TAPE: They’re not supposed to hurt anyone.

 

MOLLY: We’re so human-centric that you just suddenly think, "I wonder what time was like for that cow and its calf?"

 

JAD: Oh my God, totally! And I remember we had to cross a creek to get back to our car. And about 20 cows, live cows, were in the creek. These were I guess the cousins of the cow that we had met. The former cow.

 

AMIL ABUMRAD TAPE: Dad, I waved to the cows.

 

JAD TAPE: Yeah? Oh look, they’re looking at us. Hey buddies. Buddies and ladies.

 

JAD: And they were all just kind of hanging out. They were looking at us and chewing really slowly.

 

MOLLY: [laughs]

 

JAD: And I remember being struck by just how slow they were chewing. And I just thought, "Oh, the world’s gonna keep going. Cow’s gonna keep chewing its grass. Flowers are gonna keep blooming, the rivers are gonna keep flowing. There’s a different arc to all of this." Something about time on a farm makes you think those thoughts.

 

MOLLY: Oh!

 

JAD TAPE: Karla, when did time switch from slow to fast for you?

 

KARLA MURTHY TAPE: What do you mean?

 

JAD TAPE: You know how when we started -- when we got here and time was so weird. And it was ...

 

KARLA MURTHY TAPE: It’s the same for me, I guess.

 

JAD TAPE: It still feels that way?

 

KARLA MURTHY TAPE: Yes. It hasn’t changed.

 

JAD TAPE: Huh.

 

KARLA MURTHY TAPE: I do feel like we’ve been here a long time, though. Or like, our house feels far away.

 

JAD TAPE: Yeah.

 

KARLA MURTHY TAPE: But I think because I’m with my family, I’m with you guys, it feels like there’s a normalcy, a comfort.

 

JAD TAPE: Yeah.

 

JAD: A big thanks to Amil and Tej and Karla for being that through line that runs through everything. Big thanks to my dad, same reason. To Molly Webster, whose thoughts inspired this episode and who helped me move through it. And Tracie Hunte for the production assist and Soren Wheeler for yet one more late night push in a string of late nights that has gone back a decade. I'm Jad Abumrad. Thanks for listening.

 

[BEN: Hi. This is Ben Collins calling from southeast London. Radiolab is created by Jad Abumrad with Robert Krulwich, and produced by Soren Wheeler. Dylan Keefe is our Director of Sound Design. Suzie Lechtenberg is our Executive Producer. Our staff includes: Simon Adler, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, David Gebel, Bethel Habte, Tracie Hunte, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Latif Nasser, Sarah Qari, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters, and Molly Webster. With help from Shima Oliaee, W. Harry Fortuna, Sarah Sandbach, Malissa O’Donnell, Tad Davis and Russell Gragg. Our fact-checker is Michelle Harris. I love Radiolab!]

 

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