Columbia University Medical Center

Podcasting Gets Infected With Viruses

Tired of swine flu hype on cable television? Want to know the real facts behind the latest headlines? Or are you just fascinated by nanomachines that can commandeer a cell and reprogram it to produce millions of progeny in less than a day?

Then tune into This Week in Virology (TWiV), a podcast hosted by two Columbia scientists, virologist Vincent Racaniello and microbiologist Dickson Despommier.

In each episode Racaniello and Despommier bring a critical eye to the latest news reports, explain the most recent discoveries about viruses, and in between, sprinkle the conversation with basics about viruses and some witty (dare we say infectious?) banter.

“Being casual is key,” Racaniello says. “People are turned off by formal lectures and learn more from unscripted conversation.” Racaniello modeled TWiV on one of iTunes’ most popular podcasts, Diggnation, hosted by two, sometimes inebriated, hosts. “We’re just two people sitting down and talking, except we don’t have the beer.”

The idea for TWiV came to Racaniello after he started listening to podcasts during his long commute to work. “I’d been thinking for years about how to teach virology outside the classroom, and podcasting seemed like the perfect solution,” he says.

A week after Despommier joined the project in September 2008, the two scientists recorded their first episode on West Nile virus in Racaniello’s office. (And if you’re wondering what happened to West Nile virus this summer, Despommier in a recent episode speculated that the mild weather has kept more birds around, so mosquitoes – the virus’ vector – are feasting on them instead of us.)

But no matter. Even without a West Nile virus outbreak, the news on other viruses never ends. Episodes cover everything from why some HIV-infected people never develop AIDS to how some viruses may contribute to obesity. TWiV’s 4000 weekly listeners range from high school students to doctors as far away as the Philippines.

“Viruses are amazing, and lots of people are fascinated by them. They can infect nearly every form of life on earth and can reproduce so quickly, and in such quantities, that they evolve within hours,” Racaniello says. “They can kill us or they can help us.”

And then there’s H1N1 (aka “swine flu”), which has dominated the podcast since April.

“There are tons of blogs and podcasts out there talking about the flu,” Racaniello says, “but the people talking aren’t virologists and they just spread rumors and hearsay.”

Even mainstream journalists often take the wrong tack, in Racaniello’s view. “There’s rarely any science in these stories,” he says. “That’s what we try to fill in.”

This Week in Virology can be found in iTunes or by going to www.twiv.tv. Dr. Racaniello’s blog, www.virology.ws, contains more information about viruses, including introductory ‘Influenza 101’ and ‘Virology 101’ sections.

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