Schwab: Viruses a wonder that holds as much promise as threat

Their ability to go, well, viral, as Covid-19 has done, offers hope for the cure of cancer and more.

By Sid Schwab / Herald columnist

By now, President Trump’s response to Covid-19 has gone viral: incomprehension of the science, contradicting the CDC, making up numbers, blaming President Obama, blaming Democrats, blaming the press, making it all about him and taking unwarranted credit for stopping flights from China, for example, which never fully stopped. His incoherence is revelatory, as is his greater concern for how it makes him look than for public health. There’s little to add. Happily, smarter people are still doing their jobs.

So let’s talk more generally about viruses, which are actually pretty interesting; potentially able, someday, to save more lives than they take. To appreciate them, it helps to know basic genetics and to recognize that evolution is a thing; which doesn’t describe Mike Pence, Trump’s choice to wrangle America’s coronavirus response. But God chose Trump and Trump chose Pence, so let’s move on.

Fact: In the way recipes are not food, viruses are not alive. Unlike bacteria, which are, they have no metabolism, can’t reproduce on their own, don’t, in fact, “do” anything. That’s because they’re nothing but protein-wrapped bits of DNA or RNA, the molecules responsible for speciation, reproduction, and evolution.

There’s disagreement on how viruses came to be. Based on medical school facts and personal extrapolations, this is one concept: Those delicate, helical strands of genetic information are fragile. In the process of replication during cell division, sometimes pieces break off. And sometimes DNA mis-reproduces the strands they’re in the business of copying, causing mutations.

Stuff happens. There are, in fact, areas of DNA in our chromosomes that don’t appear to do anything. Just stuck there after some mistake or other, doing neither harm nor creating an evolutionarily impactful change. Since we have countless combinations of nucleotides (the “building blocks” of DNA), and since these events occur comparatively often, some broken-off chunks occasionally are the sort that can code the production of a protein. Which is what DNA and RNA are there to do: produce proteins. Useful ones, ideally.

If, by happenstance, those broken-off bits contain codes for proteins that are inclined to enwrap them, you have genetic material wrapped in a protein shell: a virus. If the protein capsule is attachable to a living cell, human or otherwise, and if, in attaching, it’s able to be incorporated into the cell, wholly or just its DNA or RNA, you have a potential pathogen. Mathematically, highly unlikely. But, given billions of events, it’s enough.

The acquired material might just sit there. Or — another improbable coincidence — the original breakup may have included preexisting coded instructions to the cell’s reproductive organelles, causing that cell to start replicating viral DNA/RNA rather than its own. It all depends on the nature of those detached pieces. Presumably, most of the time, nothing of that happens. Rarely, it creates advantageous mutations. (Most mutations happen to DNA randomly or from non-viral influences.) When it turns a cell’s machinery into a manufacturing plant gone wild, a gazillion virus copies burst out of the cell, invade and kill other specifically receptive cells. Without intention, you might say. Because they’re not alive. Nevertheless, until your immune system figures it out (sometimes antivirals help) you’re sick.

Scientists (people like those Trump eliminated from government before Covid-19 showed up, and whom he’s been mostly ignoring and mischaracterizing since) are using viruses, the kind that attach to chromosomes and sit there, to treat genetic diseases: by attaching “good” genes to them and turning them loose to replace “bad” ones inside human cells. There’s potential for preventing some cancers, too. Science: a good thing. Including climate science. Who knew, right?

In summary, viruses may result from the processes that led to the formation, behavior, and fragility of DNA and RNA, which then led to those molecules acquiring the ability to code and produce proteins, which led to combinations of proteins that have the ability to harness energy and reproduce: life. That the process is imperfect, making unexpected combinations randomly, is what leads to changes which, when of survival benefit, fuel evolution. If those random events are useless, nothing happens; or, as we’ve seen, sometimes they become what we know as viruses.

Hopefully it won’t matter that Trump doesn’t understand and Pence doesn’t believe any of this, as long as some on his team, and governors like ours, do.

One more thing, off topic but timely: Let’s hope Trump’s already-iffy Taliban peace deal holds. If so, good for him. Two words to keep in mind, though: North Korea.

Email Sid Schwab at columnsid@gmail.com.

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