Are There Any Good Viruses?

Are there any viruses that are good for us? Any that might rejuvenate a liver, improve the digestion, smooth the skin, in addition to those that bring us polio, smallpox, Lyme, HIV, and the flu? Some bacteria, after all, digest our food even while others cause botulism and strep throat. Viruses come in plenty of varieties. Aren’t any of them, like some bacteria, welcome or even necessary to our health?

On the face of it, no. The basic action of viruses is destructive. These strips of DNA or RNA, enclosed in protein, don’t maintain a metabolism, can’t produce new protein, and can’t reproduce on their own. They are not alive—not as the term is usually defined. Viruses do only one thing that living cells do: they evolve, as we know from requiring a new flu vaccine each year. But although a virus can’t reproduce by itself, it knows enough to insert itself into a living cell’s DNA, forcing it to make a new virus.  The vocabulary describing this process is military and agressive: the virus ‘takes over,’ ‘high-jacks,’ ‘subjugates’ or ‘commandeers’ the cell. The original cell continues to make viruses, or it withers, or it bursts. The living cell dwindles; the half-alive thing flourishes.

phages (wikipedia)

Photo of virus invading a bacterium  (Wikipedia)

For comparison, bacteria are living, single-cell organisms. They seek food and process it. They divide into two bacteria on their own. Because they are alive, bacteria can be killed— by antibiotics, by the body’s immune system, or even by particular viruses (bacteriophages, “bacteria-eaters”) that attack bacteria.

But viruses can not be killed in the same sense. They have no metabolism to disrupt. Instead, anti-viral medications disrupt and slow down their ability to usurp a healthy cell’s genome. But that takes time. If a weakened virus (such as a piece of one) is injected as a vaccine early enough, the immune system gets a head-start on preparing enough antibodies to stop the virus in its tracks. Maybe. If a virus morphs and vaccines don’t work, pandemic looms.

So viruses are “good” for us only if they ruin cells that are ones we want to get rid of. If a cell is a cancer cell in the lung, breast, pancreas, or prostate, then bravo for the virus that bursts it. And bravo for the virus that destroys the bacteria that cause tuberculosis or cholera.

There is another way in which viruses can do good deeds. They are specialists at transporting their genetic material into a cell’s genome. So biologists use them to insert corrected DNA into a patient’s genes. Such gene therapy can cure inherited diseases like cystic fibrosis. So, bravo again!–not for the virus, but for the researchers that put a strange tool to good use.

Viral replication seems to me a perversion of life’s ability to reproduce. Reproduction, perhaps the essential process of living things, is co-opted by a genetic strip to reproduce its lifelessness at the expense of the healthy cell.

Such depravity is the stuff of horror movies. In Rosemary’s Baby and the Alien films, demons and aliens find human bodies to breed in. Most of all, viruses make me think of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). A post-war trope of McCarthyist paranoia and mindless conformity, Invasion tells of townspeople becoming “not themselves” as mysterious pods placed near bedrooms ripen to replace humans with look-alike automatons that mindlessly collaborate to distribute more pods. At film’s ends, despite efforts to warn the nation, truck-loads of pods roll on to cities, with no guarantee that the outbreak can be stopped.

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The Immortal Jellyfish

There is a species of small jellyfish that will, when it is sick or injured, instead of dying, fully regenerate itself. It will sink “to the bottom of the ocean floor, where its body folds in on itself—assuming the jellyfish equivalent of the fetal position. The bell reabsorbs the tentacles, and then it degenerates further until it becomes a gelatinous blob. Over the course of several days, this blob forms an outer shell. Next it shoots out stolons, which resemble roots.” These stolons grow into new jellyfish.

Turritopsis dohrnii  (Wikipedia)

The description is from Nathaniel Rich’s article in the New York Times Magazine (Dec. 2, 2012). Over two years, one lab colony of such jellyfish rebirthed itself ten times. The jellyfish’s official name is Turritopsis dohrnii; its nickname, the Benjamin Button jellyfish. As different from humans as it may look, our genetic makeups are similar.

The immortal jellyfish is a specialty of Dr. Shin Kubota at Kyota University’s Seto Marine Biological Laboratory. Dr. Kubota spends much of his days feeding, caring for, and observing his wards. His expressed goal is to become young again himself, perhaps even to achieve immortality, or at least to point a way towards a cure for cancer.

We think of dying as a boundary that all living things share, part of the definition of being alive. But death is not so absolute. Clichés such as “you live and then you die” and “life is short” inadvertently call all the more attention to their exceptions. Bacteria, for example, don’t always die; they often divide. An individual bacterium may be destroyed or die from illness, injury, or antibiotics, but usually bacteria divide (or is it multiply?) into identical clones, which in turn will divide again.

And as for life being “short,” Buffalo grass, a prairie plant resistant to extreme weather, sprouts underground stems which in some locations may have been growing for the last 15,000 years. Among individual plants, the Bristlecone Pine named “Methuselah” still grows in California as it approaches its 5000th birthday. And Wikipedia’s lengthy “List of longest-living organisms” is not only long itself but has spawned the likes of “List of oldest dogs.”

I can understand that words for death and dying help people share their fears and grief when one of their group passes away from the circle of the living. And I can understand the simultaneous desire to imagine that that person is not “really dead” but is still alive in another realm. But perhaps we don’t need to reach into a spiritual world for such consolation. We might take to heart the models here on Earth of how living, reproducing, self-healing, and dying vary so widely among species.