Science

JUST THE FACTS (Merry Youle)

Merry Youle, author of Thinking Like a Phagegives us JUST THE FACTS:

WHO do you look to for motivation/inspiration?
Every writer who has shared their own particular insightful view of the world, and thereby expanded mine. Also essential as you are starting out are encouragement and opportunity, provided in my case by Forest Rohwer and Elio Schaechter. Lastly, the phages were begging to have their stories told. How could I resist?

WHAT scientific advance/discovery has delighted you the most?
The realization of the pervasive presence of symbiosis throughout evolution, as well as ecology. Not only are Bacteria living as obligate endosymbionts within eukaryotic cells today, but others in the past followed that domestic road all the way to organelle status. Phages play the symbiosis game, too, sometimes as essential partners in three-way coalitions, other times through temporary reciprocal liaisons with their host cell.

WHERE do you think the future of phage is headed?
Far and wide. Phage know-how will be increasingly enlisted for technological and medical purposes. In addition, as we scramble to ameliorate our disruptive impact on ecosystems such the human gut, forest soils, and coral reefs, we will realize that in every case this requires intimate knowledge of the resident phage community.

WHY did you focus your writing on phages?
Because they so clearly embody the bubbling creativity that underlies this living universe. Because they offer an inexhaustible repertoire of amazing stories. Because I love them.

WHICH is your favorite phage, and why?
φX174 (aka Yoda). In contrast to contemporary Western culture where more is always assumed to be better, Yoda demonstrates elegant simplicity and efficiency. Simple capsid architecture; one DNA strand instead of two; nested overlapping genes; a multitasking pilot protein. So bizarre did its sequenced genome appear that its intricately interleaved genes were seriously posited to encode a message from aliens elsewhere in the universe – thus the nickname Yoda.

WHEN do you get your best ideas?
First thing in the morning. The creative voices in my mind awaken before the resident mental ruts reassert themselves and once again shepherd my thoughts along familiar channels.

HOW do you want your writing to influence the world?
I want people to cheer up! OK, so Pluto is not a planet and we are no longer the center of the universe. Get over it! The story – our story – is far more than we had ever imagined. We find ourselves – and the phages – to be part of a grand saga of life and evolution. Time to cheer up and start living as if all life forms matter. They do.

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