By Louise Butler
Have you ever wondered why pictures of the coronavirus look like the kind of ball you might throw to your dog? Photos of the virus show a sphere with raised, tri-corned knobs spaced all over it, each about 30 degrees of arc apart. The virus, of course is extremely small. It is 50-90 nanometers in size. One nanometer is 1 billionth (0.000000001) of a meter, which means that 20,000 could easily fit on the dot above this “i.” So why the knobs?
Those knobs are what attach to your cells. They act like a key to unlock the protective protein barrier around your cells. Knobs that do not fit the key will not unlock the cell, protecting the cell from invasion. Knobs that do fit your cells fool it into thinking that this virus is something that the cell should want or could use. A cell absorbs the virus and then becomes its host.
Viruses are shameless guests. They use up all the cell, multiply and, once the cell bursts open from its viral load, shed hundreds of thousands of little viruses out to attack the neighboring cells. In 24 hours, the coronavirus can fill our respiratory tract with trillions of copies of itself. You then send these copies not just to the rest of your organs (this virus loves organ meat), but also into the air around you in the form of exhaled air, water droplets and sputum. The virus’ goal is always the same: to find new, healthy cells to enter, use up and destroy. Viruses are cellular parasites.
Viruses are quite simple life forms, just a protein sack with a few RNA instructions. Some assembly required. They can’t reproduce without borrowing some of your DNA. But once they acquire your DNA, they reproduce in hours. That means that in the almost 74 years that I have been alive a single virus could have created 81,030 generations of itself. In that same amount of time, I have produced only two generations: my daughters and granddaughters.
But nothing — not you, me or viruses — reproduces true each time. The combining of random molecules involves a margin for error.
That is how life forms evolve. The faster you reproduce, the better your chances for mutation. Most mutations are bad and destroy the cell. Some are good and enhance its chance for life. Humans mutate quite slowly. Viruses mutate about once every two weeks. That is one reason you need a new flu shot every year. That is why the COVID virus we face now is a faster spreader than the one we saw in January.
Now, here is the scary part. I said that viruses use your cells’ DNA to reproduce. They don’t know it is yours, they just know it is DNA, something they like and need. What if it is some other DNA? What if they enter a cell that is already occupied by another virus? Like the flu, or HIV, or Ebola? What happens then?
It turns out that viruses are more than happy living in a hot tub of multiple viruses. They mix and match the DNA from every source they find. This recombinant DNA is viable, transmissible and just as parasitic as its parents. The recombination of multiple-source DNA answers some of history’s pesky questions. Why was the second wave of the post-World War I Spanish influenza exponentially more deadly than the first? Why do pigs, birds, monkeys and bats act as vectors for human diseases? Why am I sure that 2020 isn’t done with us? The answer to each of these questions is the same: recombination of DNA in our cells.
I respectfully suggest you get your flu shot, and keep the faith.
Louise Butler is a retired educator and published author who lives in Edinburg. She writes for The Monitor’s Board of Contributors.