Are Viruses Alive?
Viruses such as the Coronavirus are fascinating and mysterious not only by how they’re so quickly able to spread across the world and cause pandemics, but by their nature of existence:
Scientists can’t agree on whether viruses are alive… Or dead.
While it may seem to most that viruses should be considered “living,” classifying the little bugs as such would challenge our notion of what being “alive” is.
Unlike other micro life forms such as bacteria, viruses have some strange characteristics that are not observed in any other life forms on Earth.
Observe a single virus and you would conclude it’s dead; put that virus in a human and you cause a worldwide pandemic.
In today’s fascinating post, we’re going deep on what it means to be “alive,” by revealing the strange workings of viruses, harmless and deadly, small and large.
Our video version of this post includes mind-blowing footage of virus cells at work. Check it out right HERE.
We also have an audio-only podcast you can download and listen to anytime by pressing on the podcast widget above.
Viruses: Alive or Dead?
Before we could microscopically view viruses, it was naturally believed that they were alive.
It was theorized by many scientists that creatures smaller than bacteria existed to cause disease such as rabies.
They couldn’t initially identify any bacteria associated with deadly diseases like rabies, but through process of elimination, they arrived at the conclusion that there MUST be creatures smaller than bacteria that have powerful ramifications to a creature’s wellness.
Scientists were right. Viruses DO exist, and DO cause great damage to our wellness.
What baffled scientists was the work of Wendell M. Stanley (and his colleagues), which took place at what is now the Rockefeller University in New York City.
Stanley and his team crystallized the first virus in 1935, and revealed a fascinating insight: viruses lacked essential systems necessary for metabolic function, which is a keystone of all other living creatures on Earth.
It seemed that viruses “live a kind of borrowed life,” according to top Virologists at the CDC.
The fact that viruses exist, and not just exist but can literally impact the entire modern human civilization (as observed by the current travel bans across the world due to Covid-19), has led to an interesting question:
What is Life?
Life was originally thought as having seven characteristics, which are as follows:
- Be able to respond to stimuli
- Grow overtime
- Produce offspring
- Maintain a stable body temperature
- Metabolize energy
- Consist of one or more cells
- Adapt to their environment
All living creatures on Earth have all 7 characteristics EXCEPT viruses. Viruses are missing a few of the above.
Why Viruses are in the Grey Zone
Viruses are not able to produce their own offspring. They require a host cell to reproduce, and actually make the host cell produce more versions of itself.
This is different from being a parasite; a parasite leeches resources off of another creature, but still produces its own offspring from within itself.
The virus on the other hand hijacks a cell and tells the cell to produce the virus, instead of reproducing for itself.
Viruses also don’t have self-preserving behavior, EXCEPT when they come into contact with another cell that they can leverage.
A virus can remain dormant in a place for a very long period of time- perhaps even forever.
It isn’t until it either falls apart (ie. when you wash your hands with hand sanitizer or soap it destroys the virus) or comes into contact with a cell that responds to the environment.
Viruses baffle scientists on the “is it living” question because all observation of viruses seems to indicate that they are knowing but chemical processes that are “just happening.”
Unlike bacteria which have autonomy over its biological functions (this means that it produces its own energy, reproduces on its own, etc. basically has its own things within the cell), viruses lack this.
They are nothing but DNA & RNA strands that suddenly interact with other cells that it comes into contact with, and then suddenly makes more of itself!
Finally, viruses aren’t even a cell. Again, it’s just DNA encased by a layer. This is not a cell, but part of a cell. They have no ability to try to thrive on their own; instead they just interact with a cell if it by chance comes into contact with it.
Viruses May Have Impacted Evolution
Like all other creatures on Earth, viruses have evolved with time. When they infect a host cell, the DNA occasionally becomes mutated, leading to new strains of viruses.
In fact, some recent scientific evidence suggests that viruses may have aided evolution and gene/DNA mutation.
Perhaps to your surprise, there are many viruses living peacefully inside of you, and your immune system is none the wiser.
These viruses are persistent and innocuous- meaning, they’re not harmful, at all.
Instead of infecting a host cell and reproducing rapidly, then killing the cell, many viruses take residence in a host cell, where they remain dormant for a long period of time, or reproduce at an extremely slow rate to avoid detection.
Even more shocking, a virus can permanently colonize its host, adding viral genes to host lineages and ultimately becoming a critical part of the host species’ genome.
Some scientists theorize, and evidence exists, that viruses may increase the rate of mutations in species while peacefully existing within a host, and allow a species to evolve faster.
It’s also worth adding that because viruses can only infect living creatures, they are constantly exchanging DNA between living creatures without the creatures even realizing it!
The total effects viruses have on life are not well understood, and a lot of it is just theory.
Viruses are a fascinating subject that is difficult to study and fully comprehend, and scientists still can’t agree on whether viruses are alive, or just chemical processes that happen.
Regardless, it goes without saying that as evidenced by the breakout of Covid-19, viruses can have severe impacts on life.
Stay healthy, stay happy, and be safe during these tough times.
Thanks for reading and we’ll catch you next week.
-Wildlife x Team International