What You May Not Know About Viruses.
This year our planet has been gripped by the concerns of the spread of a new (novel) corona virus, changing how we think and act in our daily lives. The unseen world of viruses has reared its head again in our history to changing life for years to come. Fortunately, our unprecedented leaps in science, knowledge, and dissemination of information give us a better understanding of the world of viruses around us than ever before.
How many are out there?
When most people think about viruses, they think of influenzas, STD’s, and now corona virus, but viruses are the most abundant microorganisms on Earth. In fact, there are far more viruses on our planet than stars in the sky. Curtis Suttle from the University of British Columbia estimates there to be about 100 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 viruses living on Earth from 320 000 types. These staggering numbers are hard to wrap your head around as concerns for viral spread are at a peak, but the vast majority of the virus population don’t infect humans. According to the US national Library of Medicine we have only discovered 219 of the 320 000 types that will infect us.
Everyone has fond memories of jumping in puddles, singing in the rain, making snow angels, or catching snowflakes on your tongue, but most people don’t think about the viruses in the drops and flakes falling from the sky. It's estimated that everyday 700 million viruses are brought into the atmosphere. They are so small that they are swept up into the sky, mostly as ocean spray, and carried on the winds in rain, snow, or dust clouds. You may never look at a cloud in the sky the same again, but its pretty safe to say these are not usually the types of virus we worry about as humans.
Bacteria or virus, what’s the difference?
Both viruses and bacteria are unseen, and make us sick, but are very different. Bacteria are larger single cell organisms that live and reproduce on their own. Like viruses there are thousands of different types of bacteria and most are harmless to us. Bacteria spend their life gathering enough food to survive and reproduce, and can even work together, forming biofilms, to achieve these goals. A bacteria’s cell has everything it needs to move, eat, and reproduce within it and simply needs the time and energy to survive.
Viruses, though they can have similar effects in humans, are a very different from bacteria. They are much smaller and can’t reproduce on their own. As bacteria look for food a virus needs to find a host to continue its life. A virus cell has a much less complex structure than bacteria, often simply a bundle of genetic material housed in protein. A successful virus will find a susceptible host cell and inject its genetic material taking over the hosts cellular factory. As bacteria work to grow viruses are like cellular squatters causing havoc to their hosts.
Alive or dead?
As viruses don’t reproduce or convert energy they can’t survive on their own. The debate has raged on in the scientific community whether viruses are alive. They change and evolve, have genetic material, and multiply, but not without help. Viruses are not quite alive, but not dead either.
Like microscopic living dead they only seek a host cell to hijack and make more viruses. They use the hijacked cell body to reproduce until the cell walls burst and the host cell dies. This destructive nature of reproduction is why viruses that infect humans nearly always cause illness.
Cloning and gene therapy
The unique capability of viruses to inject genetic material into host cells is the example scientist are using to develop new gene therapies to treat illness. Retroviruses are a type of virus that carry RNA and have the special ability to convert their RNA to DNA that they integrate into a human’s DNA. This natural gene editing is the technique being adapted by scientist for use in cloning and new advanced treatments.
The current mRNA vaccine development to ward off Covid-19 is a new type of treatment that works not so differently than a virus. Where a virus is injecting genetic material to corrupt the hosts, mRNA vaccines hope to deliver a more positive message. mRNA is a set of instructions for a cell to use when building a protein. Viruses deliver instruction to a host creating more viruses, while coming vaccines propose to deliver instructions to your cells that would have them build the spikes of covid-19 without the rest of the virus body. This amazing advancement in medicine gives your body the ability to develop a defense against the viruses’ main attack on potential host cells.
As we hold a great deal of fear for viruses, and the societal troubles they have caused us though time, viruses have been around far longer than humans. On a grander genetic scale, we could be considered family.
Scientists studying our genetic family tree, tracing back more than a billion years, theorize that a large DNA based virus once took up residence in a bacterial cell creating the first cell nucleus. If true, this is the beginning point for the evolution of us and the animal kingdom. Half of all human DNA originally came from viruses that infected our ancestors. Carried through sperm and egg cells viruses can integrate into our genetic coding and become a part of who we are today. These viral relics in our DNA may play a part in auto-immune diseases and some cancers, but the development of new methods of treatment using techniques based in the natural viral world will give us extraordinary ability to defend or correct viral influence in humanity.