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What is a virus? - In depth and scary look
Main Articles - Casualty by Natural
June 04, 2007
While writing this article I have borrowed from a huge number of sources. I do not claim to be an authority in the field of viruses, nor do I take any responsibility for the accuracy of the text. I was merely being curious about viruses and the possible threat they pose to the world population.

Viruses... Attack of the living dead.

No, no - this article won't be about zombies.. Although the comparison is rather obvious. In essence, viruses do not live – according to half of a divided camp of scientists that is…

For an organism to be classified as being alive it must

 ·  Reproduce
 ·  Obtain and use energy
 ·  Grow, develop, and die
 ·  Respond to the environment

Can viruses reproduce?

The question is simple enough, but it’s a hard one to answer. Fact is that viruses can not reproduce themselves without “help”. Help comes in the shape of a host cell where a virus latches onto with its “tails”. It then injects its genetic material into the host cell. Other viruses have the capacity to simply dissolve the cell wall, and “sink” into it.. Once the DNA of the virus is inside the cell, it takes control of it and forces it, using its resources, to produce more of the same virus DNA and parts of the virus. When most of the cell is used up to produce more virus material, it becomes is so weakened that it bursts like a soap bubble, releasing the new replicated viruses which immediately seek out new host cells to invade and destroy. This is essentially how viruses spread through the body. Luckily, in most cases viruses just attack one particular kind of cell.

Do viruses obtain and use energy?

A virus is not a cell, it does not need food. It does need material to reproduce, but it does not require energy, technically.

Do they then grow, develop and die? In the host cell, the viruses are produced as complete entities, technically there is no growth. Viruses DO have the ability to adapt over time to a new environment, so one could state that they do develop. Dying is also something a virus can do. Over time it loses its ability to invade new host cells and effectively “dies out”. Viruses like HIV only live a few hours when they aren’t in reach of new host cells. Most viruses are quite weak, but some have been known to stay dormant for a number of years.. Some viruses can "sleep" inside the genetic instructions of the host cells for years before reproducing. For example, a person infected with HIV can live without showing symptoms of AIDS for years, but they can still spread the virus to others..

Do viruses respond to their environment?

Well, yes and no. Virus are inert. They can not move by themselves, but always need some means of transport, be it a fluid or the wind. As I said above, viruses adapt to their environment by constantly changing their DNA or RNA. These mutations make it very hard to effectively cure viral diseases – the virus is always trying to stay ahead of the game..

So there it is, regarding a virus as a living organism could be argued.

Luria, Gould, and Singer offer the following conclusion in their book A View of Life:
“Are viruses alive? This question is more difficult to answer because it depends on a definition of life. Suppose our definition includes the idea that living things are able to reproduce. A dog is obviously alive and is made up of living cells, but a spayed dog cannot reproduce and its genetic information dies with it; yet is alive. We may, on the other hand, define life as the possession of specific genetic information capable of functioning in living cells. Then the cells of the spayed dog are clearly alive, and so are viruses, which can multiply in living cells. Viruses reproduce and evolve if they have suitable host cells available. Are viruses any different from animals or plants, which also require specific external conditions to propagate their species? To the biologist, a virus is alive because it participates in the adventure of biological evolution.”

What does a virus look like?

Viruses can have very different shapes and sizes. They’re extremely small, ranging from 100 to 2,000 Angstrom. An Angstrom is a unit of measurement that equals to 1 hundred-millionth of a centimetre. A sheet of paper is around 1,000,000 Angstroms thick. Viruses are particles of molecular size and are essentially a  single or a double strand of nucleic acid – either deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) or ribonucleic acid (RNA) depending on the type of virus - surrounded by an extremely thin protein coating.

virus HIV cells

 picture 1: HIV

A virus is not a cell, it’s more like a molecule, and shows behaviour like the molecule in the sense that viruses can crystallize.
The shape of viruses also varies. Some look like pencils, some look like spiked golf balls.

Composition of T-Even Bacteriophage

virus 2 viruses
 

  • The Capsid - The Capsid of a virus is basically its "brains." It contains an outer protein coat which is wrapped around a central core of a highly complex chemical called nucleic acid. Typically, the capsid is divided into distinct subunits called capsomeres. X-rays have shown that viruses have an icosahendron capsid (30 sides).
  • The Body - Viruses have a highly complex symmetry, somewhat like the Surveyor space craft send to explore the moon. Attached to the head (capsid) is a rod like structure that consists of a retractible sheath surrounding a central hollow core.
  • The Tails - At the very end of the core is a spiked plate carrying 6 slender tail fibers which help anchor the virus to its host.   
Here is a schematic drawing (source: thinkquest.org) of a type of virus which is called a “bacteriophage”. Bacteriophages – or just phages - are typically large viruses, which attack bacteria. The phages were first discovered around 1916. They have been much used in the study of bacterial genetics and cellular control mechanisms largely because the bacterial hosts are so easily grown and infected with phage in the laboratory.

Phages were also used in an attempt to destroy bacteria that cause epidemic diseases, but this approach was largely abandoned in the 1940s when antibacterial drugs became available. The possibility of “phage therapy” has recently attracted new interest among medical researchers, however, owing to the increasing threat posed by drug-resistant bacteria. (source: the Columbia encyclopaedia, 2001)

Viral infection, what really happens?

Most viruses are harmless, and do not cause diseases. But there are viruses that can cause paralysis (polio virus) and even cancer. There are viruses that make you sick by releasing toxics that are the result of their cellular invasion, and others make you sick, because they destroy cells that function to keep your body from getting sick.

Let’s see what happens when you catch a cold.
  1. An infected person sneezes near you.
  2. You inhale the virus particle, and it attaches to cells lining the sinuses in your nose.
  3. The virus attacks the cells lining the sinuses and rapidly reproduces new viruses.
  4. The host cells break, and new viruses spread into your bloodstream and also into your lungs. Because you have lost cells lining your sinuses, fluid can flow into your nasal passages and give you a runny nose.
  5. Viruses in the fluid that drips down your throat attack the cells lining your throat and give you a sore throat.
  6. Viruses in your bloodstream can attack muscle cells and cause you to have muscle aches.

virus killer man made
picture 2 T-Even virus, attacking a cell

Now how can we get rid of a virus?

Your immune system detects the virus and starts producing a chemical called “pyrogens”. This chemical will raise your body temperature, causing a fever. Because most viruses only become active (start their reproductive cycle) within a certain narrow temperature range, a fever will slow down, or even halt the virus from attacking new host cells. The virus will die down, and you’ll get better.

Antibiotics only have a limited use in the fight against viruses. They won’t kill the virus, but they will kill bacteria that – as a result from the viral attack – saw the road cleared to an attack. Sometimes viruses cause inflammatory reactions because the body reacts to the cells that are altered by the virus. In that case medication against inflammatory reactions work to help you feel better.
Injections with a small quantity of the virus will cause the immune system to develop antibodies that will attack the virus before it gets a chance to start its destructive reproductive cycle. Immunisation is a powerful tool against viruses, and some viruses even nearly disappeared from the face of the earth trough immunisation, but because the virus can alter its genetics, the possibility that it stays ahead of immunisation is always lurking.

Why is HIV different?

The HIV virus attacks T-cells in the immune system, eventually causing AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). There is no such thing as an AIDS virus. HIV progressively destroys the body's ability to fight infections and certain cancers. People diagnosed with AIDS may get life-threatening diseases called opportunistic infections, which are caused by microbes such as viruses or bacteria that usually do not make healthy people sick. In other words: HIV is different, because it directly attacks the body’s ability to regain health.

aids hiv virus man made  

picture 3 Schematic picture of HIV

Can man made viruses wipe out the world’s population?

Yes, in theory they can. Scientists have claimed producing new bacteriophages – viruses that attack bacteria for environmental purposes. Of course we should not kid each other. When something can be used as a weapon, some government will jump up and develop it as a weapon. Already groups of people are discussing the possibility of HIV and Ebola being man made in some military laboratory. Only time will tell if this is true and if we are facing doom from viral weapons. Meanwhile we are facing the threat of natural viruses altering their own genetics in an increasingly rapid pace. There is a distinct possibility the Spanish flu disaster of 1918, when millions of people died from a simple influenza, will be repeated in the near future. Some scientists fear that the number of deaths resulting from this new super virus will be many times higher. It could well prove to be a virus for which no immunisation will be possible to develop.

It’s really mind baffling that a living dead particle might prove to be the end of us all. Will the zombies get us after all?!?

Hans de Vries (dutchie) for Armageddon Online
November 2004

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