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Przekrój
Our fearless biologist-reporter closes his eyes and wakes up to find himself summoned to the Virus Council ...
2020-07-11 09:00:00

Of Viruses and Men
Biological Dreams

Source: CDC/Unsplash
Of Viruses and Men
Of Viruses and Men

Join our fearless biologist-reporter, this time invigilating the circles of ruthless murderers who hide their stealthy genetic material under the cloak they call capsid.

Read in 10 minutes

Due to the recent restrictions with regard to leaving the house, my laboratory work was lately limited to pondering on various questions and dream-reading through the lens of biological events. Last night, I experienced a vision in the form of a molecular whisper; an investigation dream, if you like. I, the accused, stood in the middle of a large room, the thundering voice of the SARS-CoV-2 virion booming above my head. The room was round, and the benches by its walls towered all the way up to the ceiling. In the seats were all kinds of viruses, crowding and pointing at me with their appendages. I was asked all kinds of accusatory questions and had to answer them according to humanity’s best knowledge. I will now try and give an account of what I saw and heard during that nocturnal event, in hopes that my observations are useful to others.

***

SARS-CoV-2: I hereby call to order the convention of the Virus Council. At today’s meeting, we shall plan the invigilation of the animate world and examine all the intelligence you humans have gathered on us. The interrogated was captured on the border of the human and molecular world while trying to steal our secrets. Does the Homo sapiens have anything to say at this point?

Homo sapiens: I have so much to say that I shall remain silent.

SARS-CoV-2: Not unreasonable. In order to determine whether the organism in question is of any use to us at all, the first to speak will be our expert on viral self-analysis. Doctor Peduncle, the floor is yours.

Doctor Peduncle: According to our latest information, humans are intensely focusing on researching the world of viruses. Who are we for you?

Homo sapiens: We consider you to be particles. Of a rather peculiar kind, talented and extraordinarily complex, sure, but particles still. We could not place you in the systemic order of living organisms. Sometimes we come across a definition of life that you almost manage to meet. Yet most experts agree that your lack of cellular structure and having no energy-generating system of your own disqualifies viruses from joining the world of living organisms.

Doctor Peduncle: I urge the assembled to maintain order. We should not let this upset us. If we are nothing but particles, how do your scientists comment on our complexity?

Homo sapiens: As for that, I am genuinely impressed. Just thinking about blurring the definition of life makes me shiver, but pondering the nature of viruses is almost unbearable. We know you are made of genetic material. Depending on the species, it can be RNA or DNA, encased under your protein coat, the capsid. In many of you, including most animal-infecting viruses, the capsid’s structure is strikingly similar to a regular icosahedron. When it comes to size, you are near the lowest steps of the biological ladder. Forgive my saying this, but someone standing 18 to 300 nanometres tall does not strike immediate fear into the hearts of their opponents.

Doctor Peduncle: Stop mocking us, right now. You seem to forget some of our representatives, such as the mamavirus over there, in the last row. They are much larger.

Homo sapiens: I have not forgotten them. Indeed, some viruses are so big that others – much smaller ones that we call virophages – can infect them. Large fish eat the smaller ones, and tiny viruses infect more sizeable ones. We consider it a meaningless curiosity, but since I’m here now, I’ll be happy to learn your perspective on the matter.

SARS-CoV-2: You’re not the one to ask questions here, human. All you need to know is that we consider virophages a deviation.

Homo sapiens: So you refuse to acknowledge pathogens that beat you at your own game?

SARS-CoV-2: Enough! Doctor Peduncle, please continue.

Doctor Peduncle: Let’s move on to more complicated issues. How do your scientists handle describing the mechanisms of viral life?

Homo sapiens: Life?

Doctor Peduncle: Watch your mouth, human!

Homo sapiens: I beg your forgiveness. I forgot how sensitive this topic is for you. To put it simply, the ‘life’ cycle of a virus consists of six stages. It starts with adsorption, that is a virus attaching itself to the cell it plans to infect. This happens with the help of surface proteins that recognize receptors on the cell membrane. In consequence, a virus usually limits itself to infecting a narrow group of hosts. Due to this simple rule, plant viruses are unable to infect animal cells, and so on.

Doctor Peduncle: We’re working on it.

Homo sapiens: Excuse me? Oh, never mind. The second stage is the penetration of the cell membrane and getting inside the cell. The next important step occurs when the virus sheds its protein coat, or capsid, which is then digested by enzymes of the infected cell and by those provided by the virus itself. In my opinion, the crucial part of the process is replication. Once stripped bare, the virus’s genetic material is copied, proteins are created to make new capsids, and all this by hijacking the cell’s energy and means of production.

Doctor Peduncle: You describe us as if we were some kind of parasite.

Homo sapiens: No comment. The penultimate stage is assembly, meant to encapsulate the copied genetic material inside the protein coat. This way, fully competent viral particles are produced. I would like to apologize to all the viruses present who believe they were found in a cabbage patch.

Doctor Peduncle: I can see you’re having fun. We shall skip the last stage, I mean lysis, because every virus in the room knows that process inside out. I have heard enough. I would now like to give the floor to the chair.

SARS-CoV-2: Tell us one thing, human. Why are you trying to learn our secrets? Are you trying to control us, by any chance?

Homo sapiens: We have been trying to harness all of nature; viruses are no exception here. Once we realized that the world is governed by the laws of physics and, by consequence, biology, we soon set out to putting the whole world to order. We wanted to transform it into a safe, predictable habitat. With our gaze fixed firmly on the future, blinded by the shiny capitalist promise of ultimate fulfilment, we forgot to watch our step. We strive to capitalize on nature fully. We interfere with natural ecosystems, introduce our barbaric agricultural practices, run death camps for animals, pour concrete into great rivers and tiny brooks – when I watch it all, I am not oblivious to our self-adulation and fear. Ancient Greeks would have called it hubris. Blind greed and lust for power lead to one place only, and we have seen it a hundred times over.

SARS-CoV-2: You aren’t trying to lecture me, are you?

Homo sapiens: As a representative of the Homo sapiens species, I do not feel entitled to lecture anyone, not even viruses.

SARS-CoV-2: Just as well you don’t. We ain’t interested in the cultural gibberish of lower-ranking creatures. Your delusions of grandeur aren’t even funny. Interrogation continues. Major Variola, would you like to take the floor?

Major Variola: Listen up, human. How come you escaped total annihilation from the hands of smallpox?

Homo sapiens: That’s an excellent question! Indeed, smallpox seemed to be a plague with no chance of survival for us. Except that in 1796, Edward Jenner made one of the most significant medical discoveries in human history. He invented the first-ever vaccine using a cowpox virus that was harmless to humans. The scientist noticed that people who worked with infected cattle seemed to be more resilient to smallpox. Jenner put his observation to the test, infecting a young boy with cowpox virus. A while later, he tried infecting the patient with smallpox, but the boy turned out to be resilient to it.

SARS-CoV-2: Variola Cowpox! Please leave the conference room immediately and do not show yourself again. Well, Homo sapiens, I must admit your ingenuity can be impressive at times.

Homo sapiens: You are stroking our collective ego. As a curiosity, I can tell you that our adventure with smallpox showed us the changing susceptibility to infection among various social groups. Those less well-to-do – who interacted with cattle – had a higher chance of surviving smallpox than the wealthy. This stands in contradiction with the general rule that the rich, being better nourished, are also more resilient. My apologies to the Committee, I seem to be telling too many human-related trivia again.

SARS-CoV-2: Not at all. You mentioned the rich and the poor. Does it mean the human world struggles with wealth-based divisions that can result in differences in broadly-understood vitality?

Homo sapiens: I don’t like the turn these questions are taking, but since it’s all just a dream I can allow myself to be less discreet than I probably should. You’ve hit the nail on the head. The human world is split into groups that exhibit various levels of resilience and nutrition, depending on their financial situation.

SARS-CoV-2: Following this route of reasoning, I would like the next question to be asked by Hieronymus Innocent Virchow the First.

HIV-1: Thank you, thank you. What do you know of the viruses that degenerate your immune response?

Homo sapiens: Quite a bit, actually. I can guess your identity, sir, so I shall focus on your story here. When HIV first emerged, many people connected the infection with sexual orientation. However, we soon found out that the virus affects everyone the same way. Stopping HIV from replication took us more time. Today, we know how to halt the multiplication of this retrovirus to the extent that we can prevent the infection from developing into its active form. We also came up with a number of ways to minimize the likelihood of the virus being transmitted from one carrier to another. Unfortunately, the cost of such therapies is still exorbitant, making them inaccessible to many people across the globe.

SARS-CoV-2: Ladies and gentlemen, we have all heard the human once again highlight the importance of social divisions. For this reason, I would like to give the floor to the Lodge of Hemorrhagic Fevers.

A murmur floated across the room. Only now I noticed a group of exceptionally malicious viruses, lurking in a shadowy corner. I couldn’t count them all, but I managed to identify the South-American viruses Junin and Machupo, the Omsk flavivirus wrapped in a heavy coat, and his Indian cousin Kyasanur. There were more present, but my focus kept going back to the ominous couple at the lead: Ebola and Marburg. The latter was to speak next.

General Marburg: To the point, human. As the Commander-in-Chief of the viral offensive, I shall ask the strategic questions. Tell me of your experience with our Lodge.

Homo sapiens: I must say your lot needs no introduction. I despise you. You attack mostly those who have no means to fight you, the ones to whom clean water is a luxury. True, you pose no threat to humans from developed countries, but even they fear you nonetheless. You have become a threat; a potential biological weapon. It is your fear-mongering that makes me resent you most of all. But I know your end is nigh. Our research on vaccines, growing experience in prevention methods, assiduous work on the isolation and treating of the infected – those are the horsemen of your looming apocalypse.

General Marburg: Don’t get all wound up. There are no ears to hear you scream here.

Homo sapiens: It’s not about my screaming; it’s about the voices of those working against you. We understand the mechanisms of animal-to-human virus transference. We are going to harbour a world in which animal habitats are respected. It will take the risk of another animal-borne virus attacking us close to zero.

SARS-CoV-2: Some bold statements you’ve got there, human. If you’re all so well-prepared, how do you explain our existence?

At that moment, the light shone on the podium. There, right beneath the chair interrogator, I saw two dim figures. They stepped forward, revealing faces I had seen plastered all over the newspapers. I didn’t recognize them at first, but moments later, it all became clear. MERS, SARS and SARS-CoV-2, each the spitting image of the others.

Homo sapiens: Impressive entrance, but you’re just wasting your time with this farce. We have seen right through both of your stooges and defeated them without much effort. Humans might not be the most empathetic or foresighted of species, and the way we treat our home leaves a lot to be desired. Still, we are capable of fostering many powerful ideas, such as learning to respect all life and using science to repair what we have carelessly destroyed with your greed. All three of you are just an inflated moment of panic. You pose a threat, this much is true, but not the kind of threat that you think you are. The social and economic consequences of your actions will be very challenging for humanity, and I am worried about them. But you don’t scare me! You can do nothing but uncover the gears of the system we live by. In the long run, we might even be thanking Mother Nature for your appearance.

With every sentence I uttered, I was getting more and more wound up. Once I reached peak fury and contempt, the viruses could no longer remain still and leapt towards me…

***

I woke up with my face pressed to the keyboard, on which I unknowingly wrote this article. In my dream, I saw the world the way it is, but also the way I would like it to be. Both images fused into one, only resemblant of reality. And yet, I can imagine a world in which humans and nature are linked not only by the food chain but also by the shared miracle of existence. The shift of perspective seemed to be the most important part of my dream. Our attempts to gain unlimited control over nature and make it bend to our will are bound to fail. The world managed just fine without us, and it will be all right once we’re gone. Instead of saving humanity from the alleged apocalypse, we should focus on respecting and cementing our relationship with nature, where nothing ever disappears; nothing vanishes into the void. In the constant process of matter circulation in nature, we are nothing but a self-ordered speck of dust trying to stand against the merciless rush of entropy. But this speck of dust is equipped with causative power. It is our greatest gift worth steering towards the elusive utopia.

 

Translated from the Polish by Aga Zano

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