Updated: Jul 11, 2020
Considering the fact that our world is facing a global pandemic right now, it’s not surprising that infectious diseases, namely those caused by viruses, are being talked about like never before. However, all of these new terms and ideas can be quite overwhelming, especially when there are so many types of viruses and different concepts to go along with them. Fun fact-there are more viruses on Earth than stars in the sky! Viruses are complex biological machines, and there are many misconceptions about what they are and how they work. To explain the fascinating mechanisms of viruses, we must go back to the basics.
So, what even is a virus? Many of us know them as those pesky, disease-causing agents that can’t be killed with antibiotics. Scientifically, however, viruses are defined as small parasites that go into one’s cells and mess with their genetic material. Many viruses are harmless, but others can be life-threatening. Viruses contain a form of genetic material, either DNA or RNA, enclosed in a protein coat.
What makes these mysterious anomalies of biology so enigmatic, however, is how they evolved. There is still controversy in the science world over whether viruses should be considered alive because they can’t replicate on their own and must use a host cell’s machinery in order to do so.
There are theories about how viruses came to be, but we still don’t have a definite answer. Some scientists believe that they evolved from the mitochondria, which is the organelle in eukaryotic cells that allows for one to generate energy, as they somehow separated from the cells of a living organism and evolved on their own. Others believe that viruses existed before cells did at all, and the viruses evolved into cells. In this case, some viruses remained on their own without evolving into cells, and those are the viruses known today. Yet others believe that neither of these is correct, and there is, in fact, another explanation that hasn’t been theorized at present. A combination of all three of these hypotheses could be correct, so the complexity behind virus evolution is undeniable.
So why should all of this science matter to you, and how does it impact our world today? Well, viruses cause diseases such as COVID-19 that could, literally, devastate a whole country, or even the globe, if we let them. While obviously we cannot get rid of all viruses, nor would we want to, as many viruses are actually helpful to humans in many ways, it’s imperative that we understand how truly powerful these tiny parasites are. We’ve seen several recent pandemics and near-pandemics of viral infectious diseases, and while scientists are working ever-so-hard to find treatments and vaccines to prevent them, they are spreading easier than before throughout the planet due to air travel and increased globalization. Viruses have been on this planet since before ancient times, and they find ways to outsmart us again and again, just as recent events have shown us.