Leading Science Journalist Carl Zimmer on His Genome


October 05, 2017

A Journalist Takes On the Beat of Life

Eric J. Topol, MD: Hello. I'm Eric Topol, editor-in-chief of Medscape. It's a privilege today to be visiting with Carl Zimmer, one of the most accomplished journalists in science and medicine. We're going to explore some of his work and thoughts. Welcome, Carl.

Carl Zimmer: My pleasure.

Dr Topol: You were at Yale for your English degree. Then, somehow, you took on the beat of life. How did that happen?

Mr Zimmer: I had always been interested in science, and biology in particular. I didn't really put two and two together. I wanted to be a writer in high school; I wrote for my school newspaper, and that was the idea I had going to college. I took science classes on the side, just because I enjoyed them, and that should have been a clue. It took me a while to figure it out. I got a job as an assistant copy editor at a science magazine—Discover Magazine—a couple of years out of college. I was reading these stories and saying, "Wow, this is actually really interesting." They let me write a few tiny stories and I really enjoyed that. That was it. I stayed there for 10 years before going out on my own.

Dr Topol: It's an extraordinary jump. You went from that post to becoming a multi-award-winning journalist—from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Guggenheim Fellowship, the National Academy of Sciences, the Steven Jay Gould Prize—there are so many. What's your secret? What do you do when you put together these pieces that separates you from others?

Mr Zimmer: I don't know; I think somebody else would need to judge that, as a reader. All I'm trying to do is tell stories about science, particularly about life. I see that as a very broad portfolio. I recently wrote an article about the oldest fossils of life on Earth, and I'm writing about genome sequencing this week. I see all of that as being part of trying to understand what life is and how we fit into it.

Dr Topol: Well, somehow that has become very popular. You work with Matter, the column in the New York Times, and for STAT News. Are those the two main venues that you write for these days?

Mr Zimmer: For the past couple of years, yes. I write a column for the New York Times once a week, and I'm a contributor and national correspondent for STAT. Every month I do things for them. I balance this with other magazines, like National Geographic, and books as well. As a writer, you're always trying to balance different projects to figure out how much you can handle without overloading.

Dr Topol: I neglected to mention that you've written 12 books. Do you have another one cooking right now?

Mr Zimmer: Yes. I'm writing a book about heredity.

Dr Topol: Well, that's apropos to the genomic medicine story.

Mr Zimmer: Absolutely.

Writing About What Matters

Dr Topol: That's great. Let's go back. For Matter, as a column, do you pick the stories or are they assigned to you? How does it work?

Mr Zimmer: I prefer to write about things that I pick—topics that really excite me. Sometimes people will say, "Would you mind writing about this?" but if my heart is not in it and if I don't think it's a particularly good study or subject, I get very resentful and cranky, and it comes through in the article. I look for stories that really excite me. I can't wait to get to work in the morning and get at that story. I look around and I'm constantly trying to pull stories and ideas from meetings, or I'm looking at what is coming up in journals, or just getting on the phone with scientists and asking what has just come out that has really excited them. It's impossible to evaluate everything in bio-medicine; it's insane how much is coming out. You need ways to navigate through that world.

Dr Topol: On the concept of being quite prolific, there isn't a week that you don't have an article in the Times or elsewhere. How do you balance it all?

Mr Zimmer: Scientists and doctors sometimes ask me this question. And I say, "Well, you have to remember that I don't have a lab. I don't do experiments, I don't teach full time, I don't have patients; I write." That's what I do, and I like to do it. People will sometimes say, "Wow, you write a lot. How do you do that? I hate it." I say, "Well, I start by not hating it, and there's nothing I like better than doing research, talking with people, getting notes together, and figuring out how to tell a story. I enjoy it. I love it."

Dr Topol: You are also prolific on Twitter, which perhaps is also a source. I get a lot of my news from you, actually. I keep up with the world outside of science—politics and what's going on with all the turmoil in our country—through you. How do you do that? You could easily get distracted from the focus of the life beat by trying to figure out what's going to happen to this country of ours.

Mr Zimmer: Twitter and other kinds of social media are, to me as a journalist, fascinating in how they channel information and how news flows through them. You can build Twitter into something that really lets you know about things in a way that complements traditional journalism. It's very hard to keep up with all of the news in politics. There are a few political journalists who I really admire—they're on Twitter and they're very careful about the information they provide. That guides me to the things that I have time to read. I like to perform that service for people.

Science and politics have always been intertwined, and people who claim that there is no politics in science are fooling themselves. It's always been that way. Right now, a lot of people in the scientific community are becoming keenly aware of just how much politics and science can intersect. Sometimes people say, "Why don't you stick to the science?" I say, "Well, let's see if your research is supported in a few months by the government; we'll find out how you feel about it then."

Dr Topol: Does it distract you from your focus?

Mr Zimmer: My wife gets that sense; she'll walk into my office and see a big TweetDeck window on my big screen. She'll say, "How is that book coming?" It's a nice distraction from working on big projects—these little chunks of information. I like it, and who knows how long Twitter will stay in business. They're not as big as Facebook or Snapchat, so we'll see, but I'm enjoying it for now.

A Peculiar Genomic Journey

Dr Topol: Here at the Future of Genomic Medicine, you gave a pretty hilarious talk yesterday. It was about you having your genome sequenced. Can you summarize what that experience was like?

Mr Zimmer: It was a very peculiar experience, because I have written about genomics for 20 years—even before genomes were being sequenced. I got an opportunity to go to a meeting where you could have your genome sequenced as part of the experience, and clinical geneticists would look at it and so on. It was very exciting. It was really built up, like, "Oh, I'm going to discover myself." I got a clinical report that said, basically, "You have no disease-causing variants; goodbye." And that was it.

Dr Topol: That's worth a few thousand or so.

Mr Zimmer: Exactly. At least I got STAT to pay for it. I was a little worried, because I thought they were going to be a little annoyed that they paid for my genome, and what do I have to say about it? It's a non-thing, like going to the doctor's office when you aren't feeling well and you want them to tell you that you have got some exotic serious illness. If they tell you to just go to sleep for a couple days and you'll be better, you almost feel annoyed. I wanted to find out something. A boring genome is a good genome. I knew that I wasn't going to let things stop there. I needed to get my hands on the raw data. I wanted to write a piece for STAT about it.

Getting data, as you have often said, can be a big challenge, and I didn't really appreciate just how much of a challenge it is to be able to get your hands on a hard drive with the raw data of the reads of your genome. It took me months, actually, and finding all of the little tricks that I wrote about in STAT. I would talk to scientists who study the human genome and are curious to look at their own genomes to see how they fit into the scope of humanity, but they can't figure out how to do it. They'd have to be part of a research study, but then they would have to have the research study give them their genome under certain rules. You can't just get it. Some of these new genomics companies that are offering custom genome sequencing are not offering the raw data either. Nobody wants to give you the data. I give people the benefit of the doubt and understand that they are dealing with a very tricky landscape of regulation, and they've seen what happened to 23andMe. They're going to play it safe. I get that, but it leaves us in this kind of absurd situation.

A Bald, Powerful Warrior?

Dr Topol: It's crazy. It's your DNA; it should be yours. Hiding behind regulations is crazy. You did a pretty serious hunt and went to various labs and got your information, and then you went beyond that with the warrior gene. Can you tell us about the other things that you found out?

Mr Zimmer: I wanted to see how scientists study genomes, so I said, "Here's mine; let's do it." It was really fascinating to see how bioinformatics work. How you take all of this raw data—much of which is wrong—and assemble it into a sequence that you can trust and analyze. I ended up working with a couple dozen scientists, and everybody involved just said that there was a little bit of art to this science. I went to one group and they looked at how many of these variants I had—how many SNPs I had compared with the reference genome. One group said about 3.5 million. They could look at them and say things about them.

I went to another group and they said, "We have calculated your SNPs and you have 3.9 million SNPs; isn't that interesting?" It was very awkward. The other group told me that I have 3.5 million—that's 400,000 fewer. There is no way that they could both be right. It felt very awkward to say that to him because he had worked really hard with all of his students on this. He started to explain to me how different approaches to sequencing a genome will give you different results. Even just using the same method on the same genome sequence can sometimes leave you with different results. That's just where we are.

Dr Topol: I thought it was appropriate that you titled your talk the "Library of Babel." Then you brought in the humor of looking for these crazy genes that have absolutely no basis.

Mr Zimmer: A pretty bad movie, called Assassin's Creed came out, and a genetics testing company had a tie-in offer in which they would sequence your DNA, typically for genealogy, but they threw in a warrior gene test. Do you have the warrior gene? Some research 20 years ago found that one variant seemed to be elevated in some people who showed aggression, so people spun this up into a big story—that if you have this variant, you are a warrior. They call it the warrior gene. Google "warrior gene." It's amazing.

Dr Topol: Amazing—and you paid $99 for that?

I have the warrior gene, which is ridiculous. I have also been told I have a gene that makes me prone to male pattern baldness.

Mr Zimmer: It was $89. I paid for that myself because it was so ridiculous; I wasn't going to ask anybody to pay for that. I have the warrior gene, which is ridiculous. I have also been told I have a gene that makes me prone to male pattern baldness.

Dr Topol: It doesn't look like that one had penetrance.

Mr Zimmer: It also says I have incredible muscular power. Anybody who knows me knows that's a lie. I'm not a bald, powerful warrior; that isn't me.

Dr Topol: This exemplifies that when healthy people have their genome sequenced, they should at this point not expect too much, and they might want to save their money until the price drops and it's more informative. When hundreds of millions of people are sequenced, we will know a lot more.

Mr Zimmer: People are being flooded with advertising.

Dr Topol: I know. A lot of these companies that are direct-to-consumer have no legitimacy; it's a real problem.

Contributing to STAT News

Dr Topol: Besides writing for the New York Times, STAT News is an up-and-coming source for biomedical news; it has actually taken the world by storm in some respects. Can you tell us about how that all came together? In only a year and a half, it seems to come out with nuggets every day.

Mr Zimmer: It came out of the blue for me as well. I got a call from someone I worked with in the past and he said, "I am involved in this new project called STAT; we are going to be unveiling it in a few months and we want to talk to you about maybe getting involved." It was the brainchild of John Henry, the owner of the Boston Globe. He looked around the Boston area and saw all of this amazing stuff happening in biotechnology and medicine, and felt that things were not being reported enough. There was just so much opportunity. He decided that he was going to launch a publication and he was not going to just hire a few interns to steal copy from other people.

He hired Rick Berke, who had been at the New York Times a long time, and then at Politico. Rick was building this team of great journalists—really seasoned people like Sharon Begley and Helen Branswell, and also young and up-and-coming people. The mission was to bring tough, insightful, and also sometimes fun journalism to this world, and to take advantage of being a website as opposed to a paper or journal like the Boston Globe. I have been doing a video series. They have lots of animations, and they do all sorts of things. They are very active in social media and so on. They've been breaking big stories and really holding people to task. There are a lot of serious problems in our medical system, in addition to all of the great, promising research.

Dr Topol: They were the first, or one of the very first, to write about the CRISPR patent award. At the same time, the Wall Street Journal coverage has collapsed. They used to have a big Tuesday Personal Journal, and people like Ron Winslow and many others are no longer at the Wall Street Journal. They were one of the go-to publications and they just abandoned it, essentially. They have very little dedicated coverage, so it's great that there is a STAT News.

Did She Just Call Journalists Parasites?

Dr Topol: There's a tapeworm species named after you. How did that happen?

Mr Zimmer: I wrote a book about parasites called Parasite Rex. The thrust of the book is that parasites as a life form have been given a bad rap. They're just considered degenerate things that you don't need to think about, when in fact parasites have basically won the game. There are more species of parasites by far than any other form of life, and they take all sorts of crazy bizarre forms. They push life to its limits. Parasites can go from one host to another, among four or five different species, and transform themselves into radically different forms along the way and manipulate their behavior. They're amazing. I wrote this book, and a few people have gotten in touch with me and said that they had read the book and that influenced them in terms of their career choice. One of these people read the book in college and said, "Oh, there are actually grown-ups who study parasites?" She became a parasitologist. As part of her PhD project, she had several species of tapeworms from a giant shark-like fish caught off the coast of Indonesia, and there were new species. She named one Acanthobothrium zimmeri for me.

Dr Topol: That's cool; it's a great story. In some ways, it correlates with this amazing journey you have been on where you start off with a background in English and then you become one of the leading science writers of our era. It's fantastic to have the chance to visit with you, Carl, and to learn about the things that you're doing. We know that you're going to keep doing them, and we are looking forward to Heredity. When do you expect that to come out?

Mr Zimmer: The plan is for that to come out in the fall of 2018.

Dr Topol: That's terrific. We look forward to that. Thank you very much for joining us in this conversation with Carl Zimmer, and we look forward to bringing you more of some of the most interesting people in biomedicine. Thank you.

Follow @EricTopol and @carlzimmer on Twitter


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