Where do we go from here?

Alb=E9 van der Merwe ZA vdmerwea at intekom.co.za
Mon Sep 15 15:36:00 EST 1997


Hi, all!

I have a special interest in virology, in the sense that I don't know ver=
y
much about their ecology, but I love studying their genomes (be it DNA or
RNA). In my recent ventures with an RNA virus, I came to realize (really
REALIZE) that I was working with something that very few people ever have=
 a
chance to study, or even get a glance at. I felt quite honoured to be one
of a selected few, but very soon discovered that these things are all
around, and even a layman can get his hands on one - through the common
flu! This was a very crucial enlightenment for me, leading to a whole bun=
ch
of scientific questions I wanted to have answers on (I am a very persiste=
nt
person, and like to get answers on my questions very quickly).

One thing that I could not get a satisfying answer for is this: Is a viru=
s
a living organism, or should we rather classify them as being very active=
,
biological entities, without assigning them "living" status (quite like
prions)?

Well, to tell you the truth, I've argued this one to hell and back and
still don't have a satisfying answer (and I guess I'll never have). Viewi=
ng
a virus as a living organism certainly has complicated implications of
which I am not aware (I'm speaking in the ecological sense), but I do kno=
w
this: If a virus is a living organism, then certainly it must be able to
reproduce on it's own? And that's exactly what it's doing! By infecting a
cell, the cell becomes the virus. Here's what I mean: When a virus infect=
s
a cell (any infectable cell), the virus in effect is arresting the cell t=
o
serve it's own purpose. The cell's entire machinery is taken over to serv=
e
the virus; transcription, translation, the whole lot! Thus, the cell is n=
ot
the original cell any more, but a modified version which serves the virus=
,
and that is why I see the cell as becoming the virus (note: I did not say=
 A
virus, but THE virus). We may thus argue that the normal virus (the
particle outside the cell) is just a stage of the virus' life cycle,
analogous to fungal spores or bacterial endospores: something that cannot
produce an organism without being stimulated, and for the virus that
stimulation comes from infecting a cell. The problem is: we normally don'=
t
define the virus as being the virus-cell moiety, but rather the virus
particle or genome itself.

And that gets me to the other side of the story: seeing a virus as being =
a
chemical, yet biological, non-living entity. In some ways, viruses are
similar to prions in that the do not take up nutrients or excrete product=
s,
they do not need oxygen directly for survival, and they do not reproduce =
on
their own. Probably, the word 'reproduction' could be the key here, since
living organisms must be able to reproduce on their own, otherwise they a=
re
not living. But a virus NEEDS a host for reproduction - it cannot reprodu=
ce
by itself, therefore it is not alive. But there is a problem: a common
trait of obligate parasites is that they cannot reproduce without their
host! This gets me back to a virus being alive.

You can see that I am arguing in circles, with a branchpoint that signifi=
es
viruses as being alive. Obviously, I am overlooking something (and I
believe that this something is a very simple something). Also, this whole
theory is against my belief: I do not believe viruses to be alive, but I'=
d
like some proof. So I ask that if anyone has a firm standpoint that could
help me make up my mind, I will be much obliged. Please post to the
newsgroup (it needs the publicity!).

Regards

Albe






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