The surface ultrastructure of viruses is more common in nature than you think

The year 2020 will be long remembered as the Year of the Coronavirus.  The corona or halo of this virus envelope will be the most enduring image of this troublesome year as it flashes all around the newsrooms and as a backdrop of almost all government updates on the Covid-19 pandemic.  This seemingly alien structure has captivated the imagination of mankind with a kind of awe and shock.

This out of this world image of coronavirus seems even more fascinating when one looks at the surface ultrastructure of many other deadly viruses.  In Huffington Post, Jacqueline Howard wrote about the unique yet deadly beauty of viruses as seen in atomic resolution through cryoelectron microscopy with 3D reconstruction.  See photos of these viruses in three-dimension reconstruction.

These 12 Viruses Look Beautiful Up Close But Would Kill You If They Could

But, are they really that unique and alien-looking?

Adult male and female Nothobranchius guentheri, native to the island of Zanzibar, Tanzania. Males are about 5 cm in length while the colorless females are much smaller at 3.5 cm.

In a recent Science Blog article in Sulu Garden,I showed how the corona, the most salient external feature of the SARSCov virus, resembles the corona of the outer envelope of the embryo of the annual killifish.  This rare fish belongs to a class of Cyprinodontid fish that live in temporary pools of fresh water in Africa and South America that dry up during the summer season.  The population survives as embryos buried in the mud that hatches during the rainy season.  They survive through a process called diapause wherein the embryo enters states of suspended animation, very similar to many instances found in insects.

Convergent evolution of the surface micro and nano structures in coronavirus and annual fish embryo.  Thoughts while under “enhanced community quarantine” in Miag-ao (Iloilo Province, Panay Island, Philippines).

Despite the difference in size (annual fish embryo at 1 millimeter and coronavirus at approximately 120 nanometers), both the coronavirus and fish embryo share similar surface topology.  Hence, I suggested that this might be considered an instance of convergent evolution

“Convergent evolution is a process wherein two unrelated organisms independently develop the same traits or characteristics to address a similar environmental problem.  An example of convergent evolution is the adaptations to flight.  Different animals developed wings independently of each other to enable flight, such as bats, butterflies, pterosaurs and birds []. The spikes that coronaviruses and annual fish embryos possess were developed independently to solve each of their own ecological situations.  It is interesting that the annual fish embryo is 1 mm in diameter while the diameter of a coronavirus is 60 to 140 nm or about 1/100,000th of the fish embryo   So far away from each other as species goes, yet they created the same evolutionary solution to a similar problem.  Although the coronavirus is technically not a life form, but simply a single strand of RNA (ribonucleic acid) particle, it does mutate often and is evolving faster than animals or plants do.”

Other species of marine animals also show a diverse array of surface spikes, depending on the survival requirements.  Some that need to attach to surfaces show spike patterns while others with different ecological issues show different morphology.  For example, here is a photo of the zooplankton copepod that represents 80% of the zooplanktons in the Yellow Sea.  It does show its own style of spikes on the surface of the outer egg envelope.

Pollen Grains

This corona-like pattern is not only confined to marine and freshwater species.  Perhaps the most striking diversity of surface structures can be found in pollen grains.  A cursory search of pollen grain images in Pinterest and other websites demonstrates a vast array of surface modifications to allow pollen to attach to different substrates.

Here are some examples for you.

For those suffering from pollen allergy, the spikes make it possible for the pollen grains to attach to the nasopharyngeal passages and skin more efficiently.

Interested in seeing more? Here are the links to see these images:

Surface structure of Insect eggs

Even insect eggs show a diverse, alien-like surface structure to attach to leaves of plants and other insects


The ‘bangkal tree’ is an example of diversity of structures that even higher plants demonstrate.

Though viruses seem out of this world, their surface morphology is more common in nature than we think.  What is shown here is just a glimpse of how diverse these microscopic surface structures can be.  I am sure one can find even better examples in the web.

The virus is an ancient entity whose origins remain in debate to this day.  But everyone agrees that it likely predated or co-evolved very early in the evolution of life as we know it today and continued to mutate through each stages of evolution.

Perhaps, the evolution of the intricate surface structures in seeds, pollen grains, fish eggs and even some plants might have originated from viruses?


Jonathan R. Matias
Poseidon Sciences R&D
Miag-ao, Iloilo 5023 Philippines

June 16, 2020

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Shark Tales: JFK, Mercury 7 astronauts and shark repellents

This seems such an odd topic from the start, but I thought it’s worth revisiting in celebration of today’s 50th anniversary of John Glenn’s orbital flight around the earth.  John Glenn and Scott Carpenter (who will be celebrating his own 50th anniversary in May) are the last surviving members of the original seven astronauts of NASA’s Project Mercury.  Though two other Russian cosmonauts had orbital flights before his, John Glenn’s flight was America’s first and its success changed the momentum of the race to the moon to America’s favor.

Looking back 50 years, I am always amazed at the significant advances mankind has made as a result of the space race with Soviet Russia — calculators, computers, internet, among many.  Mankind seems to excel when in competition, whether at war, in commerce or in the arts. The rudimentary equipment half a century ago could not even compare with the precision of our digital age.  Many of the technologies we now take for granted were pioneered by the men and women of Project Mercury.  Those that followed in their wake made American pre-eminence in technology possible.

Space travel was a fascination for me long after the Mercury astronauts had made their mark in history.  I was only aware of them through later documentaries.  As a young boy in the 60’s, there was certainly the thrill of watching the spaceships blast off to space.  Yet, I was more keenly interested in the splash down when the capsule plunges into the sea on its return trip.  There was that unexplainable excitement at seeing the helicopters hover around the capsule to retrieve the astronaut and the tiny space capsule.  What seemed odd at time were the other helicopters hovering around with sharpshooters on board.  It wasn’t till later when I got interested in sharks that I learned why.

So, this is my “Shark’s Tale’ for you. And it’s not about saving the shark from extinction, who got bitten lately or about shark fin soup.  Before I tell you the rest of the story, I would like to tell you a little bit more about shark repellents first.

Between sports fishing, by-catch from longline fishing and the Chinese penchant for shark’s fin soup, mankind has devastated the world’s shark population to the point that sharks are becoming endangered.  But the fear of sharks remains with us.  It is a visceral fear.  More people die of bee stings than shark bites.   With bears or lions, the fear is also there, but tempered by the fact that we can always carry a gun, can run off in a jeep or simply hide inside a house.  With sharks the fear is magnified because there is really not much one can do in the water if the shark decides to take a bite, mostly by mistaking us for a seal or a big fish dinner. 

In North America prior to 1916, there was never a fear of sharks simply because there had been no documentation of sharks attacking human beings in temperate waters.  In 1891 Hermann Oelrichs, a banker/adventurer, even put up a reward for anyone who can document a shark attack in the temperate waters of North America.  Everything changed in 1916, detailed in Richard Fernicola’s book entitled “Twelve Days of Terror,” when, in over a span of just 12 days, four people along of the shores of New Jersey were killed by a shark, most likely a bull shark rather than a Great White (a story that inspired Peter Benchley’s book, “Jaws.”)

The idea of a shark repellent was not new.  It was suggested way back in 1895.  However, serious work on the idea started with the US Navy during World War II when airmen and sailors inevitably find themselves in shark infested waters.  The sinking of USS Indianapolis, a destroyer that carried the atomic bomb to the tiny Pacific island of Tinian, by a Japanese torpedo made that need imperative.  The mission was so secret then that no SOS signal was transmitted even as the ship sank with over a 1,000 sailors in the water.  When they were finally rescued 4 days later, only 316 remained alive, the rest were eaten by sharks.   

The Navy developed a shark repellent, called the “Shark Chaser.”  It was ineffective, yet given to sailors more for morale to allay fears of sharks rather than as a true protection.  Shark research continued after the war through the Office of Naval Research (ONR) through the 1960’s with not much success either.

Eugenie Clark, a world renowned shark expert, discovered in the 70’s that a flat fish in the Red Sea, aptly called Mose’s sole (Pardachirus marmoratus), can repel sharks.  Sharks have a powerful bite and when committed to a potential meal, would not likely stop.  When the fish is about to be bitten, the shark stops at mid bite and run’s off like a scared rabbit.  It was found later on that the flat fish has glands along its sides that secrete a venomous cocktail of peptides and steroidal compounds, presumably not meant to frighten sharks, but to repel/stun organsims as it glides along the sandy bottom of the Red Sea.  It is the Mose’s sole’s fast food drive-in! Like our quick trip to McDonald’s for a fish sandwich.

When purified, this 33 amino acid peptide repellent was called pardaxin, a term coined by Naftali Primor, an Israeli scientist funded at the time through ONR, working in one of the laboratories at New York University.  As my research team at NYU Medical Center tended to work long hours, Naftali often came by for a short visit at night, the first time to get some of our ‘extra’ mice for his pet snakes.  We talked often about sharks, snakes, Israel and Chinese food.  During this period, he was able to demonstrate pardaxin’s mechanism of action. This peptide create pore channels through the gill membrane that causes a sudden rush of sodium ions through the gills. Likely, it is perceived by the shark as an ‘unpleasant” or perhaps a painful experience.  Naftali used to go out to the fishing port in Montauk Point at the end of Long Island to remove gills from sharks caught by fishermen.  It took a day’s hard work to get enough for his research.  One night, he came back totally disgusted and exhausted.  The cooler was just open for a moment and seagulls rushed to eat all the shark gills he collected.   By then my interest in pardaxin got stimulated.  Yours truly‘s contribution to shark science was helping him dissect late into the night the opercular cells out of the killifish, Fundulus heteroclitus, to use a model system to validate the concept. Certainly beats hanging around fishing ports for shark gills and fighting off seagulls! He told me one night jokingly that Orientals are the ones with the patience for this kind of work.  I just chuckled because I knew he was right! 

My real interest was to develop a gadget, a release mechanism that would enable dispersion of pardaxin or pardaxin-like analogues around the person in water upon seeing the shark.  Great idea, if we only had enough repellent.  I did manage to develop a prototype for the device that still sits on my desk till now with many fond memories.  But, back then the cost of synthesizing the active compound and the liability issues (if the person who have the device got bitten) in a litigious society like United States made the project at that time quite daunting. 

Dr. Naftali Primor holding a restrained venomous snake( Daboia palaestinae). Its venom is being used for the production of a life saving anti venom.

Naftali eventually returned to Israel, but continues to work on venoms.  This time his interest is turned on to new exciting research on the analgesic effects of small peptides from snake venoms.  This new concept, called Zep3, is a promising technology for relief of chronic pain and treatment of various skin disorders, such as  those caused HSV viruses.  This scientific adventure started me on the path of studies on repellents, leading to the development of barnacle and insect repellents called MR08.  All these new body of work and long-term friendship started on a chance meeting at the corridor of NYU Medical Center 25 years ago.

There had been continuing work on repellents from many other scientists.  That pardaxin also behave like surfactants led to new work on molecules, like SDS (sodium dodecyl sulfate), that can ward off sharks.  SDS did not meet the Navy requirement of a non-directional surrounding cloud-type repellent at 100 parts per billion.  It would require a barrel full of SDS to ward off sharks around a single person.  It is likely useful as directional type repellent where one squirts directly on an oncoming shark.  Not likely a viable option for a swimmer in panic.  Other products include the Shark Shield, a Navy led research on bag type product with a floats where one climbed inside to avoid being detected by shark. There is also a similar concept of bubbles created around a swimmer to deter sharks. There is always of course the shark cage to hide into.  A patent was issued for the Shark Stopper, an acoustic device to ward off sharks.  Wet suits with surface patterns to mask the silhouette of a man underwater are also being developed. More promising areas of work these days involve semiochemicals, associated with decaying shark carcasses (Shark Defense Technologies) that act as small molecule messengers that modulate shark behavior.

JFK and the Mercury astronauts

Consider this scenario:  America sends a daring young astronaut, the cream of the crop of military pilots (immortalized in the book and movie entitled ‘The Right Stuff’), the best among the best, in a space ship to outer space at a cost of billions of dollars in today’s money; against all odds, the ship survives re-entry and the tiny capsule comes back to Earth, lands in the ocean; the astronaut comes out alive from the tiny space capsule, swims to be rescued and then eaten by a shark in full view of journalist and shown on live television all over the world!  This was President John F. Kennedy’s and NASA’s nightmare scenario; hence, the sharpshooters on board the helicopters.

The image of an astronaut being eaten by shark was not out of irrational fear and dark imagination.  Prior unmanned space capsules brought of out the water occasionally had embedded shark teeth on the heat shielding tiles.  Like all ships of the period, Project Mercury’s Friendship 7 came with standard military survival kit and included a shark repellent device that shoots out of the capsule ahead of splash down.

Years after my shark science with Naftali, I reluctantly went with my wife one night to attend a marketing conference in Connecticut, sponsored by Arbonne, a cosmetic company.  The after dinner speaker, to my great surprise, was Scott Carpenter, who recounted his days as a Mercury astronaut.  In his dinner speech, he related the story of NASA’s preoccupation with sharks.  As the NASA-US Navy liaison officer, astronaut Scott Carpenter took the NASA- approved shark repellent device and sent it to the Navy’s shark experts for validation testing.  Scott related that as he was preparing to embark on his first space trip, he received a letter from the shark experts essentially saying that “the electronic shark chaser device was interesting with all the lights and sounds, but appeared to be mildly effective against sharks in either the on or off positions!”  Later, after the Mercury Mission, Scott became part of the Sealab Program to develop underwater living habitats — the only austronaut who also became an aquanaut. 

As we celebrate John Glenn’s and Scott Carpenter’s 50th anniversaries of their space flights, America should be grateful that JFK’s nightmare of his astronauts being eaten by sharks never came to pass.

The most eloquent sentence in space travel to date was by Scott Carpenter before Friendship 7’s lift-off:  “God speed John Glenn”


Jonathan R. Matias

Poseidon Sciences Group    [email protected]

Dedicated to my children who are on their own unique adventures.



Lazarovici  P, Primor N, Loew LM Purification and Pore Forming Activity of Two Hydrophobic Polypeptides from the Secretion of the Red Sea Moses Sole (Pardachirus marmoratus). J Biol Chem. 1986.  261:16704-167123

Primor N. Pardaxin produces sodium influx in the teleost gill-like opearcular epithelia. J exp Biol. 1983. 105:83094

Primor N. Pharyngeal cavity and the gills are the target organ for the repellent action of pardaxin in shark. Experientia. 1985. 15: 693-695

Primor N, et al.  Toxicity to fish, effect on gill ATPase and gill ultrastructural changes induced by Pardachirus secretion and its derived toxin pardaxin.  J exp Biol. 1980. 211:33-43

Sisneros JA,Nelson DR. Surfactants as chemical shark repellents: past, present and future.  Environmental Biology of Fishes. 2001.  60:117-129

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Thoughts on that fateful September 11th from a man who wasn’t there

     There is so much going on in science and technology every day, yet I am compelled instead to write about this singular event of the decade—September 11th.    Where were you on 9/11?  This is a most often asked question posed to any New Yorker traveling overseas or just going across the State lines.  I wish I can say how terrifying that day
was,.  How the acrid smoke and the dust filled my lungs.  How much anguish it had
been to see the Twin Towers disintegrating right before my very own eyes.   I could not say those words.  I wasn’t there.  I was 6,000 miles away, watching the events of
that fateful day unfold in the safety of a hotel lounge far away from home.

     I belong to that minority of New Yorkers who were not home on 9/11.  It was about
3 pm in Athens, Greece and I just started giving a lecture at a marine science symposium at the University of Piraeus.  One of the organizers came to the lecture room and whispered to me as I was giving my talk that a plane hit one of the Twin Towers.  And I continued on, thinking that it was just an accident.  Certainly those massive Towers can withstand any plane.  A similar accident also occurred before long ago with a plane hitting the Empire State Building and nothing catastrophic happened.  A few minutes later, he came back to tell me that a second plane hit the other Tower.  By then almost everyone in the conference room were rushing out by the coffee area, watching the events on CNN.  I rushed back to the hotel and became glued to the TV, just like the rest of the billions of human beings on that day.

Though I felt less concerned because my family lived miles away in Queenboro, that concern heightened when it was impossible to reach anyone by phone. Because air travel was restricted indefinitely, I ended up by accident in the Greek island of Ydra, spending a week there, mostly drinking wine and watching the Greek sunset along with a dozen fellow stranded Americans.  A week later, I got onboard a plane to
Singapore and from there finally to NYC.  Hardly an adventure worth recounting when someone asked where I was  on 9/11.

The World Trade Center was memorable to me, not simply as an icon of New York City. I had my wedding luncheon at Windows on the World, a restaurant on top of the Towers.  I had New Year’s celebrations there many times over the years.  I often go for a drink there and have lunch or dinner meetings with colleagues visiting New York
for the first time.  In 2000, I looked at several floors at the Twin Towers for Poseidon Sciences as home office.  Only the high expense of the lease and the longer subway ride talked me out of it. The Twin Towers was never pretty, but it exudes power and presence.  Not having enough money and being lazy to take a longer subway ride saved me from that disaster just a year later.

Not being home on that unusual day bothered me.  For inexplicable reasons, I
never came close to the ruins when I got home; the closest was 10 blocks away to see if my friend, Eugene, was fine.   And that was weeks after the event.  I can
sense the doom and gloom of downtown Manhattan as soon as I stepped out of the subway station.  I can feel the dust settling on my skin.  The distinct overpowering smell
that came from the combination of chemicals from plastics, cement, paper… and of
human bodies still burning underneath the rubble, filled my lungs.   As a
scientist, curiosity should have drawn me closer, but did not want to.  I felt I did not deserve to be there.  I did nothing.  Perhaps, I felt that pang of guilt for being
so far away then.  In fact, I had not gone to see the makeshift memorial after the attacks or even came close to the ruins to this date.

In a study published in JAMA in 2002 entitled “A Nationwide Longitudinal Study of Psychological Responses to September 11″ examined the effects of the World Trade Center attack on the national psyche.  In this article, Roxane Cohen Silver, who lead the nationwide study noted:

“This research dispels a number of myths …The effects of a major national trauma are not limited to those directly affected by it, and the degree of response cannot be predicted simply by objective measures of exposure to or loss from the trauma. This fact has not been adequately acknowledged by some mental health professionals….. We believe it is important to recognize that potentially disturbing levels of
trauma-related symptoms can be present in individuals who are not directly
exposed to a trauma, particularly when it is a massive national tragedy such as
the 9-11 attacks….Rather than seeing these symptoms as evidence as psychiatric
disorders, however, their presence is likely to represent a normal response to
an abnormal event.”

New Yorkers, in general, are very resilient mix of peoples.  Perhaps, it is the cultural
diversity that makes them less immune to major catastrophes even in their own
backyard.  The study in 2004 led by Joseph Boscarino and published in Journal
of General Hospital Psychiatry
showed that New Yorker’s use of mental health services only rose slightly after the September 11th terrorist attacks.  In fact mental health providers were prepared to provide mental heath services to the thousands of New Yorkers anticipated needing those services, but the expected need never really materialized.  Must had been the NY attitude thats hard to fathom at times!

CPT Jennifer McIntyre briefing troops before next mission in Iraq

What I think happened instead was the overwhelming need to do something.  Some as big as joining the armed forces to fight overseas or as little as helping those in need, big or small.  The disaster galvanized people to do something then as therapeutic journey to solidarity.  And, on this 10th anniversary, those who had done little, like yours truly, have some soul searching to do.  I am not sure if many feel the same way.    As a scientist working on marine science issues seemed out of place here, my work irrelevant in many ways.

Jenny enjoying Nat Sherman cigars I sent for her ‘boys.’ Just one of the few pleasures in the desert of Iraq.

This asymmetric warfare,  a war between a high tech nation and a low tech enemy, has a common thread repeated thousands of times in thousands of wars over the millennia– that young men (and now women too) go to war and young people die. The basic common thread is always the human element.

Though I had served my time in the army back in the Reagan years, and as I ponder this 10th anniversary of September 11th, I come to realize that I am also fighting this war (and this anger) in a different way–through my own two kids.  My daughter, Jennifer, joined the army after college and had already served two tours in

Airman Jason Matias with the Predator drones in Afghanistan

Iraq running convoys through IED infested highways in and out of Baghdad.  As an army captain, she is now again getting fresh troops ready for her third tour, this time in Afghanistan.  My son, Jason, joined the US Air Force and served his tour in Jalalabad, Afghanistan with a Predator surveillance squadron.  We, as a nation, fight wars through our children.  This is nothing new in the history of mankind, but something new and personal to me.

A Christmas card from Jason’s team in the Afghanistan airfield taken at 10,000 ft by another Predator surveilance drone

Today, as the 10thanniversary of that fateful day unfolds, perhaps it is time for me to finally come to terms with my own “post-traumatic shock,” see the Memorial and think about what I can do next for my adopted country.

Jonathan R. Matias, Science Officer

Poseidon Sciences Group

The fight against cancer needs to be an asymmetric warfare; reflections on the death of a friend

A black man was killed a few days ago.  No, it’s not gang violence.  It’s neither drug related nor a party in the ‘housing projects’ gone out of hand.  It’s not an accidental shooting or from a robbery gone astray.  Nor was it even a traffic accident.  Most people would have said that he had died or simply passed away, but I say he was killed.  The word ‘dying’ seems to sound so natural, so passive, as if his death was an expected, common place event.  He was killed by something even more sinister, more insidious, more violent and even more heartbreaking.  He was killed by his own cells, his very own DNA, aberrant as it might be, but it is his own nonetheless.  He was killed by prostate cancer.  And he was my friend.  His name: Dr. Lloyd A. Williams, neurosurgeon.

I meant to write about cancer research much later on, but his death brings this subject much closer to home.  He was an unassuming man for a neurosurgeon, mild-mannered, soft-spoken, cultured and full of wonderful dreams.  On warm summer’s evenings, he would come by my home for a short visit and we would sit near the backyard fish pond watching Japanese carps swim by.   Surrounded by tall flowering night jasmines and bamboo trees, he would relax finally on those rare days when he was not working as the neurosurgeon at the two local hospitals.  We talked about science, his love of philosophy, the old books he has been collecting and his dreams of writing poetry when he can finally relax from the miseries of doing surgery 6 days a week.  He was ambitious, holding two jobs to generate enough wealth to fulfill his dreams.  An immigrant from Jamaica finally attaining the great American dream—a grand home, investment properties, a wife, a kid.  He talked about his parents and how their old dreams for him finally materializing.  I told him that there is so much coincidence here; a Jamaican immigrant living in Jamaica Estates, NY, drinking Jamaican rum.  He just laughed.  We instantly found some common interests the first time we met and I had enjoyed those rare visits year after year.  The pond was our “happy place” to unwind, feel the breeze, and settle for a spell, just enjoying a cognac or two by the side of a little campfire.

In the summer of 2009, he looked more subdued than usual.  He told me that he has inoperable late stage adenocarcinoma of the prostate that has already metastasized to the liver and pelvic bone.  I did not know what to say, but the first thing that entered my mind was how can an M.D. miss the early warning signs and let cancer get this far.  The second thought was the misery I had seen when another person I knew long ago died from metastatic lung cancer.  Then, I thought of my father-in-law who died from prostate cancer too.  The pain and suffering for both him and his family were about to come and I can’t do anything about it at all.

He was an energetic, seemingly healthy man.  The cancer was not detectable until the pain started.  Statistics say that 1 out of 6 men will get prostate cancer and African-Americans have more than twice as much probability of getting it than the rest of the male population in the United States.  I knew all of that.  I did research on prostate cancer for a few years, although in a rat model of adenocarcinoma.  I have followed the scientific literature over the years.  But, what can I do for him?

US mortality rate for prostate cancer (2003-2007) according to ethnicity. Data derived from: SEER,National Cancer Institute, NIH

There’s hardly anything out there for late stage prostate adenocarcinoma.  But, there is always hope and there is the never ending stream of scientific papers each week about cancer.  Perhaps, there might be some clue, maybe too novel as yet, that might give us some rays of hope.  So, we agreed that I will read the literature more closely and will mail him a copy of each paper that I thought would be useful.  And so started my odyssey of reading prostate cancer papers each week.   It became almost a ritual, with my secretary printing the latest articles of the week and mailing him a copy, a weekly routine that has gone on for over a year.

I had not seen him since that summer evening, though we talked on the phone.  He was fighting the cancer, traveling to different hospitals, more surgeries, more pain and more hope.   He could barely read the articles I sent him.  But, he fought this disease with such overwhelming tenacity like a gladiator in combat.  He gave a good fight.

Last Friday, October 1st, I felt the end was near.  I thought of going to his home anyway, just half a mile away from mine.  But I did not.  He died at 5:00 PM that same day.  I have the same guilty feelings that many of us lucky enough not to have cancer–yet.  They are the same emotions felt by those who survived a natural disaster or a soldier surviving a firefight in some godforsaken corner of the world while other friends did not.

Having read, scanned, and browsed all of the recent literature on prostate cancer till I was worn out seemed like a hopeless exercise in futility now.  Yes, so much is known about the biology of cancer.  Much progress has been made.  But the progress made were not big leaps forward, not even mini-jumps.  They are all micro-steps, each of those steps cost a lot, not in terms of just money, but intellectual energy because cancer researchers are among the most passionate, determined scientists I know.

To give you an idea how much has been written about it; just go search ‘prostate cancer’ at PubMed, a database comprising over 20 million citations of medical literature by the US National Library of Medicine, National Institute of Health.  From Sept. 1, 2010 till October 1, 2010 there were 400+ scientific papers on the subject in this short span of time.  The very first paper in that database was by Dr. C. E. Liesching, printed in 1894 in the British Medical Journal.  And, 768 more followed by the end of the year — 89,105 scientific papers in all from 1894 till Oct.1, 2010.  That’s just what has been indexed, not counting articles and other journals not included in PubMed.  If you think that’s a lot on just one subject, here’s another one for you.  Breast cancer papers was included in PubMed starting from the 1868 article by Dr. Thomas Bryant, also in the British Medical Journal, to a total of 219,395 papers until October 1.  Three times more papers on breasts than on prostates.  Can’t say I blame the researchers, who predominantly were mostly male.  Even if I just take an arbitrary average length of each paper as 3 pages each, this translates to 925,500 pages when you combine the two topics, almost a million pages of ideas.

Then, you may ask, “Where are we now after almost 1 million pages of print and untold billions (or trillions of dollars)?” The answer would be different for a scientist and for a lay person.  From the scientific point of view, we have made great strides in the treatments, prevention, the understanding of the mechanisms from the sub-molecular, molecular, cellular, organ and whole animal levels.  We achieved great successes in palliative care, new instrumentations to monitor the growth and development, of detection, new anticancer drugs, etc…  The list is quite long when you consider the incremental scientific advances.  For the lay person who simply wants to know if we have the means to cure or even a definitive means to prevent, then the answer would be more disappointing—we are still quite far away.  If one looks at it from a historical analogy we are still in the Renaissance Period.  Certainly we have overcome the Dark Ages and chasing fervently for answers.  We have yet to reach Enlightenment and many more, like Dr Williams, will fall victim till we do.

We have sent spaceships to the distant planets and beyond.  We have sent submersibles to the deepest depths of the oceans.  Why is the cancer problem so difficult, you may ask?  The answer is because it’s a biological phenomenon, not a physical one where all the variables are predictable and easily quantifiable. The cancer cell is a tough opponent—it mutates, it can develop resistance to drugs, it can grow faster than most normal cells, it can hide inside tissues, it can travel at will, it can lie dormant and it can make the blood vessels migrate to it to keep supplying its growing needs.  If there is an equivalent of a Superman in cells, the cancer cell is it!

I have no answers either and can only offer a philosophical view why it is this way.  The cancer cell is a cryptic enemy.  It hides in plain sight.  It blends with the environment.  And it is not a foreign body that exhibits flamboyant markers to separate it from the rest of your cells.  It is one of your own, just behaving badly by nature or by other unknown external factors that stimulated it.  In many ways, the cancer cell is parasitic, like the parasitic wasp that lay eggs on other insect larvae.  The newly hatched wasps consuming the victim till they emerged out of the victim’s body, like the monster in the movie “Alien.”  Yet, it is not quite all that either.  Cancer grows within our tissues, taking the cellular machineries of the host to propagate itself to the point that it kills the host and itself in the process.  It is also like a virus, infecting the cells, dividing to create new viruses, rupturing the cells to invade more cells.  Like cancer, the virus hides from the immune response by masking itself, pretending it is part of the body.  There are many biological analogies I can recite that explain cancer more, but always there are exceptions.  No living organisms, even plants, escape the presence of cancerous growth.  Sharks, once thought to be immune from it, is now found to also have them.  It is just that sick sharks simply get eaten by their fellow sharks so that sick animals are rarely detected.

Fighting cancer is like fighting a war in human scale, not the traditional, conventional, symmetrical one where you know who the enemy is and where they generally are.  This cancer fight is a pure asymmetric warfare, a guerilla action against the state, a conflict between two belligerents exploiting each other’s characteristic weaknesses using strategies and tactics in unconventional ways.  The enemy hides within the population of innocents, yet co-opting the innocents to do their bidding to support its own survival.  The guerilla is part of the society, just an aberrant part, with different ideologies, but looks like everyone else.  The guerilla mutates into different forms to avoid surveillance, changes tactics to adjust to situations.  The larger force trying to maintain control expends massive efforts,  materiel and fighting elements to keep the guerillas in check, catching a few out in the open, but missing many that blends well with their environment.  They lay dormant when times are bad.  They recruit new members to replace the lost ones and wait for the right time to strike back at the government’s weakest point or weakest moments.  The cycle of attrition goes on indefinitely at times, sapping the strength of the presumably stronger force little by little.  This cancer war is no different than Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam and others like it.

The only difference is that cancer has no ideology that we understand in human terms.  No single purpose other than the survival of its own kind.  No plans to invade other bodies outside of the confines of the single human host. No aspirations and none of the awareness that the death of the host equals its own death as well.

How do we win this war?  Certainly not through the current dogma we are following now.  The successes are incremental and easily reversed by unforeseen events, like drug resistance and mutations of the cancer cells to evade immune surveillance.  It is certainly not going to be won by drugs that simply give 4 months of life extension at best for the value of $93,000 as in Provenge.  It can only be won by asymmetric thinking, with by new ideas out of the mainstream, out- of- the- box.  But such a war against cancer has to be a determined one, fueled not by massive amounts of money directed at everything else under the sun, but a targeted approach using a new tactic never before taken.  We have enough understanding of what makes a cancer cell unique, what we are lacking is a coordinated strategy, action and purpose.  Asymmetric or not, let’s treat this like a real war, not the symbolic names politicians use.  Let’s fight it the way we won World War II, with both industry and government in synchrony to bring all its massive forces to bear on a single purpose of destroying cancer by targeted means.  It will not be won by simply nit-picking and aimless meandering in broad fronts the way we are pursuing it now.

The last sentences in Thomas Bryant’s 1896 article seem apropos:

It is true that what I have stated is not new….. If the cases I have brought forward have any influence in reminding us of what we have sometimes neglected, or in urging us to do what we cannot fail to recognize to be right, my object will have been obtained; for in our profession, as in many others, the old saying is too true, “That more error is wrought by want of thought, by far, than want of brains.”

Success in a scientific endeavor comes on the heels of the mini-successes that others had made long before.  I think we have learned so much in the last decade alone and it’s time to somehow integrate these into a more meaningful course of action.  Perhaps, in the not so distant future, we can save another Lloyd Williams from being killed by cancer in the midst of fulfilling his dreams.

Jonathan R. Matias, Chief Technology Officer

Poseidon Sciences Group, New York, NY

Additional reading

Liesching CE (1894) Br Med J., 1(1745):1241.  htttp://

Bryant T (1868) Br Med J., 2(415):608-609.

This article is dedicated to:


a neurosurgeon and a dreamer who loved science, medicine, music, philosophy and most of all, his family

The aging process and the ‘7-year Itch.’ Reflections on senescence from the summit of Mt. Colden

My blog entry seems always much longer than I had planned and this one will not be short either.  I might as well make this a tradition.

The thought of aging, as a young man, was farthest from my mind.  It was something my parents and others were going through, not me.  That mindset was a long, long time ago.  Now it’s different.   As I think about the aging process today, three things come to mind:  Mt. Colden; the 7-year itch; and an idea about aging from the past. Continue reading

The biology of being oily. Something old and something new.

      Relax.  This is not another story of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  This is even more up close and personal—it’s the daily oil spill on your skin. 

      It’s the middle of the New York summer.  You sweat profusely most of the time.  Worse, your natural skin oils just oozes out of control like the Deepwater Horizon pipeline to give you that uncomfortable, shiny, unhealthy look.   Ladies, makeup just won’t hold long enough.  You’re back again to the powder room to fix the ‘paint job.’  Guys, especially those who like their heads closely shaved as if they just came out of army boot camp or just out of jail, oils just drips down your face and make your head shine like a brand new bowling ball.  If you are acne prone, then life gets even more miserable.  And it’s all because of that tiny gland, called the sebaceous gland, alongside your hair follicle that spews out natural oils, called sebum.  In the US, oily skin is a $1.2 billion dollar over-the-counter industry and about $ 2.5 billion for prescription drugs, if you have bad acne.  Part of the success of that industry is because of people like you and me, the unlucky majority of really oily folks.

      This topic is quite interesting for me for two reasons.  First, I did spend a decade and a half in the olden days doing dermatology research, especially on sebaceous glands and hair.  Second, just through serendipity, I have the answer to our oily problem.  Now that I got your attention, let me tell you a little about why you need oil and how it happens to mess up your life too (Yes, sounds like the same argument for crude oil).

Cross-section of the skin showing the sebaceous gland and hair

      There is an average of 100,000 hairs on your scalp, including fine barely visible hair and thick ones.  Then there are those non-pigmented, fine hairs on your face, arms, legs and back.  You are born with the same number of hair until you die, barring any major personal catastrophe like setting your hair on fire.   In some men and women, the hair gets thinner and less pigmented giving that balding look if one is predisposed to baldness or the thinning look that comes with age.  And, with each hair is your life time supply of oil from the sebaceous gland right next to it.  Besides that we have the much larger apocrine sweat glands in our armpits, around the nipples and the genital area that produces more sweat.  Initially odorless, the apocrine secretions become odorous depending on the mix of microorganisms present on your skin.

      Some of us have bigger glands than others; those unlucky few have overactive ones.  The sebaceous duct opens to the pores that deliver the oil outside of the skin.  It oftentimes gets clogged with oil and dead epidermal cells and then you get blackheads or whiteheads.  For many, this is already bad enough.  But, for the 85% of teenagers and the minority of young adults in this country, it can transform into full blown acne when the trapped oils cause inflammation because the acne bacteria, Proprionibacterium  acnes, starts proliferating using oil as its food source (Remarkably sounding like the oil eating marine bacteria in the Gulf) and converting the oil into irritants.  Just think of it as fresh butter off the grocery store turning rancid after you leave it out in the counter for a while.  By then you will be running to the corner drugstore to get some over the counter medication or go online for the super high tech de-plugging, skin rejuvenating, over-priced products shown on TV.

      Both men and women get acne.  The glands respond to the male hormone, testosterone, which the sebaceous cells convert to dihyrotestosterone to stimulate more oil production.  The sebaceous cells at the base of the gland starts filling up with oil.  It gets bigger and bigger as it is pushed out towards the center of the gland by new cells dividing and growing behind it.  When totally filled to capacity (sort of like an oil tanker about to run aground), the cell bursts open into the open cavity of the gland and the spilled oil gets pushed up and out of the pores.  Now you have a full blown oil spill and one that you can’t stop by capping the well.  Women produce testosterone too from the adrenal glands, from the ovary or convert estrogen to testosterone at the level of the cell where enzymes convert these precursor hormones to more active ones.   Some of us also have over active enzymes in the skin that convert more than it should or have more protein receptors than bind the hormone, transport it to the nucleus of the cell, stimulating more cells to divide and more oils to form.  This is the biological recipe for your own personal nonstop oil spill.

      You would think that since oils on our skin are such a pain, why it did not shrink throughout evolution as human beings get less and less hairy?  Who needs oil anyway?  Well, your natural oils lubricate your skin, preventing it from dehydrating and the thin coating of oil on your hair keeps it from drying up.  The chemical composition of sebum is so uniquely different from other natural oils in our body.   Why this is so remains a mystery to science, for now.  Certainly there are antimicrobial peptides, such as cathelicidin, beta defensins and histone H4, present in the sebaceous glands that can kill Staphylococcus aureus and P. acnes.  Moreover, acne is a concern probably only in the last 5,000 years, too short of a time span for evolution to allow natural selection for people with smaller glands or none at all.  Or maybe, pimples were sexy before 5,000 years ago.

      But, I think our skin oils have a higher purpose and that is to give our uniquely individual scent.  In non-mammalian primates, such as gerbils, rats and mice for example, sebaceous gland secretions are the means of communicating individual identification and sexual attraction.  Most likely early humans identify each other by their scent.  Perhaps, the sense of smell was more heightened as a means of communication before language was invented.  It still persists in our modern world only in some aboriginal cultures.  In the Desana tribe of the Amazon and the Batek Negrito of the Malay Peninsula, tribal membership is based on similarity of body odor and marriage is allowed only to a person from another tribal group with a different odor.   The Ongee of Andaman Islands, the Bororo of Brazil and the Serer Ndut of Senegal all recognize personal identity by the individual’s smell.  I remember my college Anthropology 101 seeing photographs of aborigines from Papua New Guinea during their ritual of smelling the face, armpits and chest to recognize and welcome visitors from another tribe.  Now, you can’t even dare to try that in the New York subway without getting seriously hurt or ending up in jail.

      As human beings created larger, more complex societies, the value of smell has faded from memory and is retained in social customs without true connection to the sense of smell.  An example is the Indian custom of smelling someone’s head as an affectionate greeting, a ritual dating back to thousands of years and even chronicled in ancient Indian texts as a “the greatest sign of tender love.”   That understanding in today’s society is translated to a more commercial one, looking for the smell that pleases, that creates the urge to buy, that stimulates other senses, and especially that masks other smells.  The sense of commercialism is starkly prominent in the bewildering array of perfumes in the market today. 

      Current research on smell is a sophisticated science using astounding technology that allows one to identify individual chemicals among the thousands that permeate the environment or that comes off the surfaces of plants and foods.  While most research are in the food applications of smell, the more intriguing ones are on the search for that pheromone that attracts the opposite sex, the very basic of human interactions.  The article by Saxton and his colleagues from the University of Liverpool described a steroid called androstadienone presumably from sebaceous/apocrine secretions that contribute to the smell of sweat and saliva that influence how women perceive the attractiveness of a male.  What’s interesting was that the test environment for that study was the process of ‘speed-dating,’ that strange new ritual of the modern era, so we thought,  that I am sure the Desanas, Baroros, the Ongees will find curiously familiar.

      Since we don’t need so much oil in our modern world, how do we get rid of it and acne along with it?  That has been a seemingly endless chase for solutions since the ancient Greeks and Egyptians.  Today’s armamentarium includes remedies, such as sulfur, that are as old as the first written language.  To cover all of these will bore you to death and, if you are already suffering from acne, you already know all about these anyway:     

Intra-lesional steroid,  benzoyl peroxide, antibiotics, retinoids, antiseborrheic medications, salicylic acid, alpha hydroxy acid, azelaic acid, nicotinamide, kera-tolytic soaps, combined estrogen/progestogen contraceptives,  antiandrogens, topical retinoids such as (Retin-A), adapalene (Differin), and tazarotene (Tazorac), (marketed as Roaccutane, Accutane, Amnesteem, Sotret, Claravis, Clarus), nNicotinamide, (vitamin B3), Naproxen or ibuprofen for their anti-inflammatory effects, dermabrasion,  phototherapy, deep penetrating light therapy, photodynamic therapy, surgical lancing, laser treatment, aloe vera, neem, turmeric, papaya, ananthamoola, azelaic acid (brand names Azelex, Finevin and Skinoren), heat, pantothenic acid, tea tree oil, zinc, tetracyclines, low glycemic index diet..…just to name a few.

Some are  just methods, others are purely synthetic, some are derivatives from petroleum and the rest are natural extracts of plants.  What is disconcerting these days is that what we thought was safe yesterday, is the new toxins of today.  Pregnant women particularly are so concerned when using cosmetic products these days.

The idea

      All these treatments are meant to shrink the sebaceous gland, kill the bacteria, reduce the inflammation or get rid of the oil.  The last one, getting rid of the oil, received the least serious interest since you can’t make much money by simply selling blotting paper or selling soap to disperse the oil (dispersants in the Gulf oil spill are made from soap ingredients by the way).  The commercial solution is always something that either sounds like a drug or is a drug or some esoteric formulation that combines all of these anti-acne effects for $80 bucks an ounce.

      Why not just get rid of the oil?  Seems easiest to do and least likely to involve anything that will have serious side effects.  Just like skimming the oil off the ocean surface after the BP oil spill.  It gets rid of the unsightly mess, keep the wildlife from being seriously damaged and not worry about the oil washing to the shore.  Why not do the same for your face?

Ifrenel clay powder and single use daily pack

      The idea is not unique, even for us.  We’ve thought about it for many years, but never so seriously until serendipity took over (For the etymologically challenged, the word came from the name, serendip, given by Indian sailors thousands of years ago to the island we call now as Sri Lanka because they found it purely by chanceIn those days, mariners rarely venture too far out of sight of land because they thought the  world was flat and the ship falls off beyond the horizon—unless of course when  storm blew you off course and land in Serendip by accident).  Biological ideas don’t come often.  Eureka moments are far between the ‘hurry up and wait’ mode of science.  More often it comes through an unrelated event or a side observation.  In this case, we were busy trying to develop a formulation for our barnacle, insect and shark repellent projects, looking at ways to improve the effect of this nontoxic, edible repellent.  At the time we were working with a range of materials including clay.  Also at the same time, it was a hot humid summer day, oil oozing out of my face.  I thought wistfully that maybe I should try some of these clays on myself as I have never liked the thought of using blotting paper (I did try blotting paper before just to be fair) and washing with soap just moves oil around. 

Decline in the perception of oiliness in women after single application of Ifrenel clay

      I rubbed this new clay composition on my skin, then washed it off quickly because guys usually don’t want anything on that makes them look like a girl—no offense.  Something unique happened.  The oil went away with the clay, totally absorbed and washed off.  And something else, my skin was softer, tighter, no shine and most of all, remarkably smoother—for almost the whole day!  I do have my sensitive moments too and I had been around skin care companies long enough to know that we got something really amazing.

      We eventually gave the clay a new name, Ifrenel Clay TechnologyTM, just to make it sound sexier (and French), but the composition is a proprietary mixture of clay materials found in nature.  These clays are rare, not something you will find just anywhere, except from a few mine deposits in the United States.    When one applies it to the skin only once, Ifrenel keeps the oil away for over 24 hours.  When tested on women volunteers who rated their “oil spill” from 1 to 5, with 5 being your equivalent of the Deepwater Horizon scale, the feeling of being oily went away in 10 minutes and lasted for the next 24 hours, at least.   My daughters started using Ifrenel two years ago instead of buying those brand items off  TV ads (saved me a lot of bucks). 

Reduction of acne in women after daily use of Ifrenel

      Then something else happened.  Acne went away and rarely come back, unless they forget using it.  So, off we go running another clinical trial and demonstrating that one can actually clear acne in a week.  The inflammation stopped within two days.  That’s because the acne bacteria don’t have anything to feed on and maybe taken away with the clay too.  Cystic acne can be painful to the touch, just ask anyone who has it. No longer after only two days of a single use each day because the acne bacteria is not there to convert oil into irritants.  But remember, Ifrenel is not a cure.  It just takes away your oil spill.  Acne will come back after a week if you stop clearing your oil away.

      This was a pleasant distraction from our usual marine science projects and certainly far from our malaria projects too.  Off we went to file patents for this, then launched a new company based on the technology, called Ifrenel (from I feel fresh and ‘naturele’).  It will be a hard fight to get it in the store shelves, but we will manage because we aree so confident that it works after tests in over a thousand women.  For men, you can apply it on your face and your shiny ‘bowling ball’ will have that matted, healthy look very quickly, without anyone knowing about it.

      Is this so unique just because I stumbled on it?  Without sounding like an infomercial, IfrenelTM (and its companion product called ClaynTM for just those with the oily problem without acne) is all natural clay.  It works by applying the powder on your skin when it’s dry, just before you wash it, by rubbing with your fingers (see video link below).  This also gives you that microdermabrasion workout that removes dead skin and residual cosmetic chemicals off your face.  When you wash it away, the oil goes with the clay-water mix.  Can’t apply when you skin is wet; the Ifrenel clay will absorb water and lessen the effect.  Not an easy thing to do because we are all conditioned to the soap and water routine.  This is better for you than soap so get used to it quick!  Without oil, your P acnes bacteria don’t grow, your pimples and blackhead disappear and your skin is smooth as silk all day.  No kidding.  And, your make up stays on much longer, saves you money in the long run and spare the wear and tear on your shoes going back and forth the powder room.  There are no emollients, no fancy petroleum chemicals and no silicone to make it smooth.  It’s just your fingers, your skin and Ifrenel clay.

       And how about odor?  It does even more remarkable things that I will tell you one day soon.  I might get to like dermatology research again after all these years.

      Now that this oil spill problem is solved, time to get back to more marine sciences.  Next time I will tell you about shark repellents.  Not having one at the wrong time can really mess up your day permanently.

Jonathan R. Matias

New York, NY

Poseidon Sciences Group

About Ifrenel

The science of Ifrenel      (how to use the product; must see if you want to get best benefit)

On the science of smell

Saxton TK, Lyndon A, Little AC, Roberts SC. 2008 Evidence that androstadienone, a putative human chemosignal, modulates women’s attributions of men’s attractiveness.  Hormones and Behavior. 54(5):597-601.

Rip Van Winkle, Hibernating Fish and Malaria Control

Annual killifish male and embryos in peat

When I think of hibernation, my first thought is my high school English literature class on Washington Irving’s tale of a Dutch settler named Rip Van Winkle.  The story’s setting is New York’s Catskills Mountains during the American Revolutionary period.  In this tale, Rip Van Winkle was a fun-loving, lazy, henpecked husband who escaped his nagging wife by running to the mountains where he encountered strange men playing nine pins.  After drinking their liquor, he fell asleep under a shady tree.  Rip returned to his village after waking up only to find out that 20 years had passed and America was a already a new republic.  Many of us would wish we can do just that when times are rough and wake up later when times are better.

Irving’s story of Rip Van Winkle was likely influenced by ancient folklores in Orkney (Scotland) where a drunken fiddler find trolls having a party, plays music with them for two hours and goes home  to find that 50 years had passed.  But there are even more older tales of a similar nature around the world, such as the German folktale of Peter Klaus, of Niamh and Oisin in Ireland, the ancient Jewish tale of Honi M’agel, the Chinese story of Ranka in 3rd century AD, the 8th century Japanese tale of Urashima Taro and the story of the Seven Sages by Diogenes Laertius of the 3rd century.  The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus tells of Christians escaping Roman persecution by sleeping in a cave to awaken after a century to a new world wherein Christianity became the new religion of the Roman Empire. 

As there are numerous variations of the hibernation theme in the literature, there are even more variations of hibernation in the natural world.  Insects do it all the time; as do seeds of plants.  Tiny invertebrates, like the tardigrade, remain in hibernation for over a hundred years in a dry state and ‘reawaken’ when exposed to water.  As long as it is hibernating, the tardigrade can withstand extremes of pressure, temperature, desiccation and low oxygen.  Artemia cysts, commonly known as brine shrimp eggs that hobbyists hatch to feed fish fry, behave like that too.  They remain hibernating in a dry state and re-animate when placed in salt water, becoming the “sea monkeys” that most of us remember as a child.   Other mammals do it too.  Female kangaroos, bears and badgers can delay the implantation of the embryo by inducing reversible developmental arrest to postpone the period of birthing until months later when food is plentiful.  Just like Rip Van Winkle, these animals escape inhospitable conditions by escaping in time.

Diapause (from the Greek dia meaning between and pauein meaning to stop), suspended animation, aestivation, hibernation and crytobiosis (hidden life) are terms that evoke images of a long, but temporary sleep.  For most organisms that are unable to physically move away, it is their only means of surviving harsh environmental conditions until the next more favorable season.  Even now, the science of suspended animation is advancing far beyond insects and arthropods.  Non-injurious suspended animation can be induced in mice for a short time by replacing the oxygen in the air it breathes with hydrogen sulfide.  The long term medical potential in human terms is delaying trauma from injury until more favorable medical interventions can be applied.

Where does fish come into this?  First, let me tell you a story of my own fascination with one unusual class of tropical fish that do exactly the same.  They are called annual killifish (from the Dutch word kill meaning small stream). They thrive only in seasonal pools that evaporate totally during the dry season.  When the rains come the following year, or even five years later, the fish population returns again to re-populate the pond.  They are not the lungfish that most of us might be familiar with.  Lungfish ‘aestivate’ in mud chambers they create before the pond dries up.  They continue breathing air through a hole on top of the moist chamber while at the same time reducing their metabolism.  Annual fish are unique because they can completely stop at three specific diapause stages of their normal embryonic development.  They escape in time by near zero metabolism and complete cessation of embryonic development.  Though not as extremophile as the tardigrade, the diapause stages of the annual killifish are more resistant than non-diapause stages to extreme conditions in their environment

My first introduction to this fish was during the 1970’s in the laboratory of Jules Markofsky, who at the time was studying the annual killifish, Nothobranchius guentheri, for aging research at the Orentreich Foundation.  Annual killifish live for about one year.  Some species even have life spans as short as 4 months.  Compare that to the guppy that can live as long as five years and the mouse or rat for about 4 years.  Back then, so little is known about the biology of the killifish that we were unable to get enough embryos to hatch synchronously to do aging research. In fact, we sought help from the Long Island Killifish Association, an esoteric and dedicated group of hobbyists that maintain such rare fish in captivity.  It was such a fascinating group that I, too, joined the Club.

Fish hobbyists know more about these unique and colorful killifish.  And, there are dozens of such specialized clubs in US and Europe.  In fact, one does not need to go to the jungle to find most of these species.  Just meet with any one of the killifish hobbyists who can share some diapause eggs.  Hobbyists continue to brave malarial mosquitoes and wild animals, even animals of the two-legged kind, to bring back live specimens from Africa and South America that are then bred in aquarium tanks.  While environmental degradation and man-made land alterations likely have doomed scores of native populations, much of the species known today exist in the aquarium hobby.

After 25 years studying diapause in N. guentheri, combined with the work of other scientists/ hobbyists, I began to have a better idea of the environmental cues that trigger the onset and termination of diapause.  The day-night cycle, temperature, humidity and maternal cues that influence the development of diapausing states in silkworm, for example, are the same in killifish—an unique example of convergent evolution. 

How about malaria?  Curiously, the geographic range of malarial mosquitoes and annual killifish in Africa and South America overlap.  George Myers, a noted ichthyologist of his time, in the 1950’s first observed reduced incidence of mosquito bites in areas populated by killifish.  Since then Richard Haas, Rudd Wildekamp, Jules Markofsky and I have proposed at various times in the last 30 years to use this fish for mosquito control.  Since most countries have a few native species of annual killifish, we can even keep the environmentalists happy since we don’t need to introduce any exotic fish to do this.  The local ones will do just as well.  All we need is to grow and distribute a lot of them around. 

The tribesmen in the sub-Sahara Africa already use annual killifish in freshwater storage containers and wells.  Hobbyists already know that ‘killies’ are larvivorous.  Yet, common anecdotal knowledge is not enough to push regulators and funding agencies to use this fish for mosquito control.  Recently, the publication in the online journal Parasites & Vectors finally verified the anecdotal evidence by methodically demonstrating the feasibility of using killifish as mosquito control agents.  In this paper, the embryos in the pre-hatching hibernating state were transported in moist peat moss and dropped in temporary ponds where they hatched, consuming all the mosquito larvae.

Although conventional larvivorous fishes have been used to rid mosquitoes in ponds as far back as the building of the Panama Canal, their use had been limited to more permanent waters.  Fish predators, like Gambusia, work great on abandoned swimming pools after hurricanes, for example.  But this fish has wrought havoc in many ecosystems because of their prolific and voracious nature.  Transporting even native conventional live fish to remote areas is a big hassle.  With only dirt roads and footpaths available to reach rain pools, mining pits and similar transient pools, transport by water trucks is just not practical. 

Now we have a transportable fish in a bag.  Instead of a water truck, a backpack is enough to carry a million diapausing killifish eggs!  Sort of like Johnny Appleseed, another American legend, bringing bags of eggs instead of bags of apple seeds. 

The idea of the ‘instant fish’ is nothing new.  It’s been tried unsuccessfully a few times as a business.  What’s new is taking this technology to a more useful purpose.

How can we transform this idea of “instant fish in a backpack” into something practical for malaria control in the future?  Stay tuned to my next blog when I get re-animated again.

— Jonathan R. Matias

Suggested reading:

Annual fish biology

mosquito control