Although I still have a few sniffles, I appear to be over my bout with the flu. Over the past few days, sitting in my jammies binge-watching Cosmos, I began to ponder viruses. In short, they are amazing. According to Wikipedia (I’m too sick to go the library), a virus consists of a chunk of genetic material (DNA or RNA) coated with proteins for protection. That’s it.
Remember drawing cells with a nucleus and mitochondria in biology class? We learn cells are the basic building blocks of life. Life begins in a cell. Even single cell organisms (think of looking at Paramecium under a microscope back in Biology 101) are obviously alive, busy swimming around finding food. They have everything they need in their cell to replicate themselves, to carry on life.
Viruses are not “alive” because they are not a cell – they are lumps of organic material. They do come in interesting shapes and some even have “heads” and “tails”. But basically we are just talking about a chunk of genetic material lying about. Flotsam seemingly left over from the process of evolution. They are everywhere, “found in almost every ecosystem on Earth and the most abundant type of biological entity” (Wikipedia).
Viruses are not alive, but boy can they replicate. That’s where we come in. Viruses need to infect living organisms to propagate themselves. They sneak into our cells and hijack the equipment. Then, like the pep club commandeering the principal’s photocopier, they make a bunch of copies of themselves. After they have used up all the paper and toner, the viruses are ready to be spread to more hosts.
Once again, we lend a helping hand (especially if we don’t wash our hands). Viruses need us to spread them around. Because they are tiny, they travel through the air, propelled by a good sneeze or cough. This may seem like a random process, a biological accident. But viruses have evolved to become more effective at replicating and spreading.
Think about that. How does something that is not alive evolve? Another thing we learn in Biology 101 is that all living things seek to reproduce, to ensure their species survives. That’s called the biological imperative. Animals eat, sleep, hunt or gather, play, have sex. Even plants have sex with the help of pollinators. Viruses do none of these things. Yet they persist, mutating to find better ways to survive.
I am sure there are evolutionary biologists who could explain it all. But they would miss the point. The point is, viruses are amazing. Life is amazing.