Chef Tom Colicchio to Host New MSNBC Show on Food Policy Reform
Chef Tom Colicchio may be best known as the head judge on Bravo's "Top Chef," owner of a chain of restaurants and host of the new show, "Best New Restaurant." But the renowned chef is also dedicated to food policy reform. He co-founded Food Policy Action in 2012 to educate the public about food policy and to pressure politicians to reform the food system.
Last week, he joined Senators Barbara Boxer and Richard Blumenthal and Representative Peter DeFazio as they reintroduced a genetic engineering food labeling bill. As if Colicchio wasn't busy enough, he announced yesterday that he will be MSNBC's first-ever food correspondent. He will also host his own weekly show, "Stirring the Pot," on MSNBC's new online channel Shift this spring.
"This is a big deal," author Michael Pollan told the LA Times. "The fact is that people are deeply engaged by food stories, whether about food safety, nutrition, hunger, animal welfare, public health or the environment. Tom has a sufficiently broad grasp of the issues to connect the dots between food and all these issues."
Even before the show has begun, Colicchio has already started "stirring the pot." In his interview announcing his new position, he laments how "some members of Congress are pushing back on the standards for school lunch." Colicchio says, "I've spent some time in some school lunchrooms where the food is actually really good, and so I would love to challenge Congress to look at what school lunch can be."
His solution for the impasse in Congress: "they need to sit down around the table and have a good meal. They need to break bread and have a discussion."
It's not only Congress that needs to sit down, eat a meal and talk about food. Everyone needs to. "Sitting down and asking questions about food is something that is missing right now," says Colicchio. "If you look at the last election, food never came up. Hunger barely came up. So let's have this discussion. Let's talk about food."
He also went on The Rachel Maddow Show yesterday to talk about the state of our food system. The chef applauded Michelle Obama's efforts to get Americans, especially children, to eat healthier. He says, "she's done such a great job," especially in "broadening her audience" by using a variety of media, including talk shows, TV programs geared towards children and viral videos.
He says the problem, though, is deeper than just raising awareness about eating healthy food. "Fruits and vegetables are typically more expensive than processed foods," so how do you help people who are trying to eat better but can't afford fresh produce, says Colicchio. "That has to go to policy."
If you look at subsidies, 85 percent of the $25 billion worth of subsidies goes to commodity crops, according to Colicchio. Fifteen percent goes to meat and dairy. One percent goes to specialty crops, which includes fruits and vegetables. "So there has to be a policy change to make those more affordable," Colicchio says, because our food policies don't support the dietary guidelines set by our own government.
The chef points out that a lot of stories we hear about in the news are really food stories. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is a food story because "it affects the food chain, the fisheries and people's livelihoods that rely on those fisheries." Same goes for the "overuse of pesticides, which leach into the waterways and create a dead zone in the Gulf. Another food story."
"People are ready for that next conversation about food," says Colicchio. "People want to know what's in their food, they want to understand food safety, they want to understand social and economic issues around food and they want to fix hunger problems."
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When Looking Through a Microscope Isn’t Close Enough.<p>For the last few years, <a href="http://www.rokaslab.org/" target="_blank">our team at Vanderbilt University</a>, <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/lab/Gustavo-Goldman-Lab" target="_blank">Gustavo Goldman's team at São Paulo University in Brazil</a> and many other collaborators around the world have been collecting samples of fungi from patients infected with different species of <em>Aspergillus</em> molds. One of the species we are particularly interested in is <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/rwgn.2001.0082" target="_blank"><em>Aspergillus nidulans</em>, a relatively common and generally harmless fungus</a>. Clinical laboratories typically identify the species of <em>Aspergillus</em> causing the infection by examining cultures of the fungi under the microscope. The problem with this approach is that very closely related species of <em>Aspergillus</em> tend to look very similar in their broad morphology or physical appearance when viewing them through a microscope.</p><p>Interested in examining the varying abilities of different <em>A. nidulans</em> strains to cause disease, we decided to analyze their total genetic content, or genomes. What we saw came as a total surprise. We had not collected <em>A. nidulans</em> but <em>Aspergillus latus</em>, a close relative of <em>A. nidulans</em> and, as we were to soon find out, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.04.071" target="_blank">a hybrid species that evolved through the fusion of the genomes</a> of two other <em>Aspergillus</em> species: <em>Aspergillus spinulosporus</em> and an unknown close relative of <em>Aspergillus quadrilineatus</em>. Thus, we realized not only that these patients harbored infections from an entirely different species than we thought they were, but also that this species was the first ever <em>Aspergillus</em> hybrid known to cause human infections.</p>
Several Different Fungal Hybrids Cause Human Disease.<p>Hybrid fungi that can cause infections in humans are well known to occur in several different lineages of single-celled fungi known as yeasts. Notable examples include multiple different species of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/yea.3242" target="_blank">yeast hybrids</a> that cause the human diseases <a href="https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/6218/cryptococcosis" target="_blank">cryptococcosis</a> and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/fungal/diseases/candidiasis/index.html" target="_blank">candidiasis</a>. Although pathogenic yeast hybrids are well known, our discovery that the <em>A. latus</em> pathogen is a hybrid is a first for molds that cause disease in humans.</p>
(Left) Candida yeasts live on parts of the human body. Imbalance of microbes on the body can allow these yeasts, some of which are hybrids, to grow and cause infection. (Right) Cryptococcus yeasts, including ones that are hybrids, can cause life-threatening infections in primarily immunocompromised people. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008315" target="_blank">Why certain <em>Aspergillus</em> species are so deadly</a> while others are harmless remains unknown. This may in part be because <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fbr.2007.02.007" target="_blank">combinations of traits, rather than individual traits</a>, underlie organisms' ability to cause disease. So why then are hybrids frequently associated with human disease? Hybrids inherit genetic material from both parents, which may result in new combinations of traits. This may make them more similar to one parent in some of their characteristics, reflect both parents in others or may differ from both in the rest. It is precisely this mix and match of traits that hybrids have inherited from their parental species that <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/science/14creatures.html" target="_blank">facilitates their evolutionary success</a>, including their ability to cause disease.</p>
The Evolutionary Origin of an Aspergillus Hybrid.<p>Multiple evolutionary paths can lead to the emergence of hybrids. One path is through mating, just as the horse and donkey mate to create a mule. Another path is through the merging or fusion of genetic material from cells of different species.</p><p>It is this second path that appears to have been taken by our fungus. <em>A. latus</em> appears to have two of almost everything compared to its parental species: twice the genome size, twice the total number of genes and so on. But unlike other hybrids, which are often sterile like the mule, we found that <em>A. latus</em> is capable of reproducing both asexually and sexually.</p><p>But how distinct were the parents of <em>A. latus</em>? By comparing the parts contributed by each parent in the <em>A. latus</em> genome, we estimate that its parents are approximately 93% genetically similar, which is about as related as we humans are with lemurs. In other words, <em>A. latus</em>, an agent of infectious disease, is the fungal equivalent of a human-lemur hybrid.</p>
How A. Latus Differs From its Parents.<p>Elucidating the identity of closely related fungal pathogens and how they differ from each other in infection-relevant characteristics is a key step toward reducing the burden of fungal disease. For example, we found that <em>A. latus</em> was three times more resistant than <em>A. nidulans</em>, the species it was originally identified as using microscopy-based methods, to one of the most common antifungal drugs, <a href="https://www.drugbank.ca/drugs/DB00520" target="_blank">caspofungin</a>. This result provides a clear example of the potential importance of accurate identification of the <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogen causing an infection.</p><p>We also examined how <em>A. latus</em> and <em>A. nidulans</em> interact with cells from our immune system. We found that immune cells were less efficient at combating <em>A. latus</em> compared to <em>A. nidulans</em>, suggesting the hybrid fungus may be trickier for our immune systems to identify and destroy.</p><p>In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our quest to understand <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogens is becoming more urgent. Growing evidence suggests that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/myc.13096" target="_blank">a fraction of COVID-19 patients are also infected with <em>Aspergillus</em>.</a> More worrying is that these <a href="https://doi.org/10.3201/eid2607.201603" target="_blank">secondary <em>Aspergillus</em> infections</a> can worsen the clinical outcomes for those infected with the novel coronavirus. That being said, we stress that little is known about <em>Aspergillus</em> infections in COVID-19 patients due to a lack of systematic testing, and none of the infections identified so far appear to have been caused by hybrids.</p><p>So, when it comes to hybrids, some are fantastic (the minotaur), some are helpful (the mule) and some are dangerous (<em>Aspergillus latus</em>). Understanding more about the biology of <em>Aspergillus latus</em> may help in our understanding of how microbial pathogens arise and how to best prevent and combat their infections.</p>
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