Sunday, June 19, 2011

Amazing and frightening virus world

I've just finished reading this splendid 100-page specimen of science writing from the US academic Carl Zimmer, who writes regularly in the New York Times and Scientific American.

Not so long ago, I would never have imagined myself buying a book on viruses, or even being capable of reading such a book, since I've never done any formal studies in biology, let alone human viral pathologies. But this subject has been constantly in the news for many years, and I consider it worthwhile to make an effort to understand what it's all about. In any case, Zimmer's immense talents as a writer (he lectures on science writing at Yale) enable the layman to read his fascinating virus tales as if they were stories in a popular magazine. So, I strongly recommend this little book to people who are interested in topics such as infamous everyday viruses (common cold, influenza), horrors from history (smallpox), current challenges (HIV, West Nile virus, Ebola) and the astonishing case of bacteria-eating viruses (phages).

One of the mysterious themes handled brilliantly by Zimmer is summed up in a simple question: Is a virus a true living thing—like animals, plants, fungi, bacteria, etc? Normally, we would imagine that the answer is no, since the defining aspect of a virus is that it can only "be fruitful and multiply" when it has teamed up with a living host. But, insofar as a virus carries around a specific cargo of exotic genes (quite unlike those of humans), we would be narrowing down absurdly the scope of viral studies if they were to be regarded essentially as lifeless piles of chemical substances. They are better looked upon as "almost-living" entities, which often have terrifying surprises up their sleeves. Some dog-owners say, of their dear pet: "The only thing he lacks is the power of speech." In the case of viruses, the only thing that prevents them from being looked upon as "true" living creatures is their inability to reproduce themselves autonomously in an ordinary DNA style.

Incidentally, one of Zimmer's chapters has a particularly ominous title: Predicting the next plague.

VIDEO: For obvious reasons, viruses in humans have a bad reputation. But this is a narrow vision of the relationships that exist between humans and these mysterious microscopic entities, who have provided us with certain vital genes. Zimmer talks here about archaic life-sustaining viruses in humans:

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