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Zi Wang Thought He'd Cracked the Toxo Parasite. Then He Made His Breakthrough Disappear 

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click to enlarge For  "Zi the Mentalist," what began as a hobby turned into a persona. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • For "Zi the Mentalist," what began as a hobby turned into a persona.

On the first Saturday in May, Zi Wang glides between attendees at the seventh annual Cabaret Risque, a benefit gala for the Gateway Men's Chorus at Soulard's Mad Art Gallery. The crowd is variously dressed in gowns, tuxedos and leather chaps. Around him, suits mingle with burlesque performers, and somewhere in the crowd a professional balloon artist is twisting pornographically detailed versions of a balloon-based Papa Smurf.

It's a bit of a scene, the sort of party where you wouldn't be entirely surprised to encounter a roving magician called "Zi the Mentalist."

Wang guides his willing rubes to a rear room of the gallery. In a previous life, the building was a police station, and it still boasts off-green wall tile and barred jail cells. Four men carrying small plates of appetizers arrange themselves around one of the room's lamp-lit tables. Wang produces a deck of cards.

He's wearing his usual performance outfit — a deep-red dress shirt and a jet-black suit. Wang introduces himself to the table without much flourish. He starts shuffling immediately.

When he turns it on, Wang has the voice of a showman, a blend of assertive storyteller and intentionally hacky standup comic. Beneath the conversation, his hands move like bandits.

The cards chosen by the audience disappear into the deck, only to appear later in some impossible fashion. Cards turn up in Wang's wallet, his sock, his jacket pocket. A three of diamonds, when rubbed just the right way, becomes a queen of hearts in the upturned palm of one astonished patron.

At one point, Wang makes a stack of three cards vanish, and he casually retrieves them beneath a card box on the other side of the table. One of the men, a blonde with a high laugh, leans closer, pressing his forearms against the table in absolute concentration.

For his next trick, Wang bends a chosen card lengthwise, creasing it, and drops it on the top of one half of a cut deck.

"You can see, the bend is right here," Wang remarks, showing the table. Four pairs of eyes stare at the card as Wang buries it beneath the other half of the deck.

Now, the mentalist hovers his hand over cards, and the blonde emits a shriek, then laughs and jerks away from the table. There's the bent card on the top of the deck. Another man wipes a hand over his eyes, as if trying to adjust the grin on his face.

Wang offers reassurance; he never claims to be some supernatural mystic. "It's all just sleight of hand and misdirection," he tells them. "The crazy part is, would you miss it if it happens again?"

They do miss it again. And again. And again.

Wang got into studying magic in college, though he says he's always been a fidgeter, shuffling poker chips and playing cards as a nervous habit long before he learned how to bend the laws of object-permanence.

"There are physical limitations of what you can do with a few pieces of cardboard," Wang says during a brief break in the gala's action. Over the course of two hours, he's made a handful more people sputter in disbelief, their mouths hanging open or caught in mid-groan. They stare at a card in their hand, confounded, their expressions pictures of accusation.

"That's why I love close-up magic," Wang says later. He never tires of these reactions — that mix of surprise and outrage and wonder. "It's the illusion of choice," he suggests, that gets people so riled up. Up close, in physical contact with the cards or within inches of Wang, "they feel like they should have complete control over the outcome of the trick."

Of course, they don't.

"The more fair they feel that it is, the more frustration and joy and wonder comes out of impossible results," he adds. "As a magician, it makes me aware of how flawed my own perceptions are, and the ways in which we're systematically mistaken about the world."

Born in Beijing in the late 1980s, Wang's early life aspirations were shaped by his parents — and those expectations didn't include either geneticist or magician. They wanted him to be a medical doctor. His father's career as a chemical engineer kept the young family moving, and Wang spent time living in Singapore and Toronto before they finally settled in upstate New York.

After high school, Wang moved to St. Louis to attend Washington University, completing an undergraduate degree in biology. By the time he started his Ph.D. program in 2010 he was understandably tired of cross-country relocation. He liked St. Louis and the university's research program, one lab especially.

As an undergrad, Wang had attended a lecture by David Sibley, and he later kept showing up in the professor's office, brimming with questions about Toxo. Sibley became his mentor for the better part of the next decade.

In that time, Wang would learn what it feels like to be the rube.

Though Toxo appears to live a quiet life of dormancy in most of its hosts, the bug is no pacifist. Every year in the U.S., there's an estimated one million new infections, and about 200,000 of those lead to illness. Along with the parasite's lethal effect on fetuses and newborns, studies continue to find statistical links between Toxo and some mental illnesses.

Some theories seem to tilt at windmills. Czech scientist Jaroslav Flegr has made a career out of Toxo behavioral studies. In a 2007 paper, Flegr concluded that the infected stood a higher chance of dying as pedestrians in car accidents. A different study by Flegr suggested that infected subjects "expressed higher attraction to nonconventional sexual practices," including "bondage, violence, zoophilia [and] fetishism." Flegr even theorized that his own tendency toward risk-taking and self-destruction was, perhaps, connected to the Toxo inside him.

Flegr's studies make headlines, but scientifically, they're dubious. Sibley recounts a dinner he once shared with some colleagues and Flegr. At the table, the Czech scientist claimed he could predict a man's Toxo status from his choice of timepiece.

As Sibley tells it, Flegr "had this idea, that for men who are seropositive, their personal hygiene standards relax. They're very disgruntled and anti-authoritarian. They dress more shabbily, and so they wear like a broken Timex watch. And if they're seronegative, they wear a Rolex."

Flegr's theory turned out to be easy to test; all the researchers at the table knew their Toxo status.

"We went around the table to see who was wearing what watch," Sibley says, laughing. "It turned out he was 100 percent wrong."

Wang's obsession with Toxo didn't carry him quite as far as Flegr. Wang wanted to know about dopamine, a discrete, measurable component that could be converted into numbers and analyzed, reviewed and eventually turned into answers that would be stamped into science textbooks and journal pages. Or so he hoped.

The Sibley Lab wasn't the only lab attempting to create engineered parasite strains missing the H1 and H2 genes, but Wang was the first to knock out H2. Four years later, with the help of an advanced genome editing tool called CRISPR, he did the same to H1.

In the meantime, however, Wang was having trouble replicating the influential 1985 study on which he'd based his own experiment. Try as he might, he couldn't detect a significant swing in dopamine inside the brains of mice infected with the standard strain of Toxo.

Wang was flabbergasted. It was like dropping an apple and watching it float off your hand and into the clouds. The dopamine theory hinged on the basic assumption that Toxo changed dopamine levels.

"I wound up running face-first into the wall of, 'I can't replicate any of this,'" he says.

Wang kept trying, which involved removing the brains from dozens of mice, grinding the individual organs into paste and then measuring the dopamine content. Over time, the possibility for error or fluke hardened into near-certainty. The data was sending him a message.

"If you squint real hard and ignore the error bars, then maybe there was an increase," Wang concedes, "but the increase wasn't significant." And in any case, the increase wasn't anywhere near the level claimed in the widely cited 1985 study.

Wang spent months, then years, trying to account for the discrepancy. Perhaps he had simply been unlucky, producing outlier results that weren't representative of what was really happening in the brains of zombified rodents. Maybe only H1 was fiddling with dopamine levels, and H2 was a red herring. Somewhere, he thought, there must be a mistake.

Over time, he says the rival labs that were looking into the dopamine theory quietly moved on to other projects. "These things didn't replicate in their lab, either," he suggests.

With the help of the precision gene-editing capabilities of CRISPR, Wang eventually mastered the cut-and-swap of H1 and H2. He could cut it from Toxo and replace it at will. If those genes functioned like a dopamine lever that controlled mice, sending them to their doom, they should behave as one.

They didn't. Present or absent, the genes didn't change the amount of dopamine in the infected mouse brains.

There was one other test to try. It was a test that would attempt to evaluate the dopamine theory by using Wang's genetically modified Toxo strain, but in an environment that had nothing to do with cats or their urine.

In 2014, Wang shipped samples of his homegrown strain to a lab at Johns Hopkins University. There, scientists infected mice with the mutated parasites. Then the researchers injected their furry test subjects with cocaine and amphetamine.

Why the hard drugs? Previous experiments demonstrated that Toxo infection tends to blunt the hyperactive effects of the high. In mice, as in humans, those effects are primarily controlled by dopamine. In a lab environment, scientists can track and measure the drug-addled rodents' physical movements, and that data allows them to make conclusions about the dopamine levels during the coke party. Wang hoped the results would show that his earlier tests had missed something, that science's previous assumptions about Toxo — and its puppet-master pull on dopamine — were based in reality.

But after cranking up the infected mice up with big doses of both stimulants, the rodents infected with Wang's mutant strain showed no difference than those infected with normal Toxo. Clearly, the parasite wasn't using those genes as a lever to control the flow of dopamine. In Wang's hands, the basic premise of Toxo's mind-control power had floated away.

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