COMMENTARY: Outsmarting the virus

Viruses are the Schrodinger’s Cat of biology. That is, they can be both alive and dead at the same time. In the famous thought experiment by Erwin Schrodinger, the Nobel Prizewinning physicist postulated that a cat in a sealed box could be both alive and dead at the same time. In Schrodinger’s defense he was illustrating the absurdity of quantum superposition, where it is assumed that two opposite positions can exist in the same place at the same time. But in the case of a virus it is, like Schrodinger’s cat, both alive and dead at the same time.

Viruses are considered life forms, not living things. There is a difference. In the words of Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone, viruses exist in the “shadowland” between animate and inanimate life forms. A virus existing all by itself is not a living thing. It is not a cell. It has no protoplasm, no nucleus, no cell wall. It has RNA but can’t trigger replication of its genetic code. But life is possible.

When a virus encounters a living cell something frightening happens. If the cell finds the surface of the virus compatible, it will surround and absorb the virus. The cell draws the virus into it and in that instant the virus has all the tools it needs to become a living thing. The very cell that became the virus’ host now becomes its victim. The virus consumes the cell from the inside out. As it gains energy from the cell it also replicates itself. When the cell becomes so full of virus copies that it can hold no more, it bursts, sending the virus spawn into the surrounding cells to find more homes, more replication, more burst cells. This continues until there are no more living cells for the virus to spread to. The host is dead. Viruses can not live in dead cells, only living ones.

Viruses are parasites. They are both smaller and more basic than bacteria. From the standpoint of evolution, they are a primitive form of lifepossible material.

Viruses have been wreaking havoc throughout the ages of man. And in each of these ages they have found a home in one creature (a bat, a bird, a pig, an insect, a worm, the list goes on) and have then changed in some important way to jump to another life form. The closer the life form is to us, the easier it is for us to become victims of that virus. Remember, when a cell accidentally comes into contact with a virus it will only absorb the virus if it feels comfortable with it. Viruses that don’t give a good vibe to a cell will be ignored by that cell.

When viruses learn to live in mammals, they are more likely to be compatible with us. When a virus living in some mammals makes the jump specifically to primates, we become a natural target.

Primates and humans share as much as 99% of their DNA. That makes it easy to share viruses as well. What is more, we live in a world where the distance from one continent to the next is hours and the incubation period of a deadly viral disease is days. Given this situation it is easy for the viruses to win.

Whether we are talking about Marburg virus with a death rate of 80% in its last outbreak, MERS at 40%, SARS at up to 10% or Spanish Influenza of almost 3%, we are talking about an ancient menace. This menace never dies. It changes form, adapts as needed, hides, waits and leaps at whatever opportunity comes its way. Our only defense is knowledge of the enemy.

If we hope to be smarter than Schrodinger’s cat, we need to encourage deliberate thought, promote communication, fund education and subsidize research.

Wash your hands and keep the faith.

Louise Butler is a retired educator and published author who lives in McAllen. She writes for The Monitor’s Board of Contributors.