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Working with dangerous viruses sounds like trouble – but here’s what scientists learn from studying pathogens in secure labs

Microbes are everywhere – and they aren’t all friendly. spawns/E+ via Getty Images

Working with dangerous viruses sounds like trouble – but here’s what scientists learn from studying pathogens in secure labs

Microbes are everywhere – and they aren’t all friendly. spawns/E+ via Getty Images

Working with dangerous viruses sounds like trouble – but here’s what scientists learn from studying pathogens in secure labs

Microbes are everywhere – and they aren’t all friendly. spawns/E+ via Getty Images

Working with dangerous viruses sounds like trouble – but here’s what scientists learn from studying pathogens in secure labs

Microbes are everywhere – and they aren’t all friendly. spawns/E+ via Getty Images

There is no such thing as zero risks in any endeavour, but over many years, researchers have developed safe laboratory methods for working with dangerous pathogens.

Jerry Malayer, Oklahoma State University

There are about 1,400 known human pathogens – viruses, bacteria, fungi, protozoa and helminths that can cause a person’s injury or death. But in a world with a trillion individual species of microorganisms, where scientists have counted only one one-thousandth of one percent, how likely is it researchers have discovered and characterized everything that might threaten people?

Not very likely at all. And there’s a lot to be gained from knowing these microscopic enemies better.

So even though in day-to-day life it makes sense to avoid these dangerous microorganisms, scientists like me are motivated to study them up close and personal to learn how they work. Of course, we want to do it in as safe away as possible.

I’ve worked in biocontainment laboratories and have published scientific articles on both bacteria and viruses, including influenza and the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. Here at Oklahoma State University, 10 research groups are currently studying pathogens in biosecure labs. They’re identifying genetic variations of viruses and bacteria, studying how they operate within cells of their hosts. Some are untangling how the host immune system responds to these invaders and is affected by so-called comorbidities of obesity, diabetes or advanced age. Others are investigating how to detect and eliminate pathogens.

This kind of research, to understand how pathogens cause harm, is crucial to human and veterinary medicine, as well as the health of mammals, birds, fish, plants, insects and other species around the globe.

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