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Would we be better off if viruses did not exist? - (4/1/2021)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro
Rocks aren't alive, yet we need them for our roads. Clouds aren't alive, yet we need them for our rain. Viruses aren't alive, yet we need them for what? To make us sick and even kill us? Viruses are crafty little things, but are they crafty little living things? What is the definition of "life"? No simple answer to that question exists. Out of 20 definitions found in the current Merriam-Webster Dictionary, only one seemed appropriate within the context of this article: an organismic state characterized by capacity for metabolism, growth, reaction to stimuli, and reproduction.

OK, so are viruses alive or not?
This question has been a source of contention throughout the world of science. Even the prestigious, London-based Microbiology Society, publishers of dozens of eggheaded periodicals, cannot agree. 

Some microbiologists contend that if the definition of life must include the ability to replicate, then one must say that no organism is self-supporting. All organisms are ultimately dependent on the metabolic activities of their host cells. These hosts include both eukaryotes (animals, plants, fungi) and prokaryotes (certain forms of algae and bacteria). Likewise, humans depend on the metabolic activity of nitrogen-fixing bacteria and photosynthetic plants. The diversity of that microbiota will vary from person to person. There are very few, if any, forms of life on our planet that could survive in an environment where other lifeforms were unnecessary.

Other microbiologists argue that viruses are not capable of independent reproduction. They must replicate within a host cell, and they employ the host cell's machinery for this. Compare this to intracellular bacteria, which may simply use the host as a "home" in which they can hook up their own limited replication machinery and augment it with that of the host cells. 

Can viruses be killed?

If they are not alive to begin, then, by the definition of death – the irreversible cessation of all vital functions of the organism, including respiration and independent reproduction – then viruses do not qualify for death per se. Let's use the word "inactivate" instead. To inactivate a virus, one must shatter its outer shell. Vaccines help the immune system ingest and inactivate a virus. Another way to snuff them out is to mechanically shake them, such as in a centrifuge. Chemical treatment through ultraviolet light, rhodium-based compounds, and anti-viral drugs can destroy their basic functionalities. 

What makes a virus good?
There are things we encounter every day that can be but good and bad. Fire can either cook your steak or burn down your house. The same is true for viruses. First off, a good virus does not threaten us or other living organisms. But secondly, life on Earth relies on them for healthy ecosystems. In fact, two strands of DNA (deoxynucleic acid), the molecules needed for all organisms to grow and reproduce, originated from viruses. Yes, it's true. Without viral DNA within our genomes, we would not be able to reproduce. So, without viruses, you, me, and your next-door neighbor would still be swimming around in primordial sludge. 

Predators of bacteria

Viruses protect us against harmful bacteria by hijacking their internal mechanisms. If viruses suddenly disappeared, some bacterial populations would virtually explode, perhaps killing us within a few days. They work in our oceans by devouring bacteria and other microbes. These marine microbes comprise approximately 90% of all living material by weight and produce about 50% of the Earth's oxygen. How do viruses help us in this regard? Each day, the viruses kill about 20% of all oceanic microbes and 50% of deep-sea bacteria. By winnowing these organisms, the viruses make sure that oxygen-producing plankton have enough nutrients to carry out high rates of photosynthesis, ultimately sustaining much of Earth's lifeforms. 

Predators of insects
Many insect pests exist that can damage plant growth, including those plants that we eat. Once an insect population becomes so unmanageable that they cannot all be eaten by birds, aquatic life, and so on, viruses move in and give them the heave-ho. They create the space for all other lifeforms to thrive.  

Indian scientists use viruses to control three insects - the American bollworm, the tobacco cutworm, and the red hairy caterpillar. The American bollworm affects about four dozen crops, including major crops such as cotton, chickpea, and tomato. The virus that controls the bollworm is known as the Nuclear Polyhedrosis Virus (NPV). NPV has been tried in tandem with other control agents, and its efficacy has been proven in field conditions. Since NPV is sensitive to ultraviolet rays during hours of sunshine, it must be sprayed after sunset. This virus is species-specific and does not negatively impact other organisms.

Predators of humans?
We know this tune all too well, from smallpox to measles, to COVID. In the age of COVID, the joke is that if certain people are too dumb to wear a facemask and practice social distancing, they are dumber than the coronavirus and will pay the price with their lives. But biology is not that simple, as SARS-CoV2 has attacked people of all ages and all ethnicities. Vaccines have saved personkind before and will do it this time as well. This pandemic has also enhanced our learning curve with respect to taming viruses and protecting ourselves from them.

What have we learned about viruses, our planet, and our species thus far?
In one way, COVID-19 is helping the globe heal. In China, as people were in lockdown and factories were shuttered, greenhouse gas emissions fell 25%. Also, coal use fell by 40% at China's six largest power plants, compared with the last quarter of 2019. According to China's Ministry of Ecology and Environment, the proportion of days with "good quality air" was up 11% compared with the same time last year in 337 cities across China. In Europe, satellite images show nitrogen dioxide emissions fading away over northern Italy. A similar story is playing out in Spain and the United Kingdom. 

However, the pandemic has also provided cover for unlawful activities. These illegal actions include deforestation of the Amazon rainforest and exotic animal poaching in Africa. They have hindered environmental diplomacy efforts and created economic fallout that some predict will slow investment in green energy technologies.

The bottom line
No, we would not be better off without viruses. They are what balances every lifeform so that we can all live together. Without viruses, we would quickly lose most of the biodiversity on Earth. We would have a few species take control and force out everything else—a world of giraffes and sea turtles. Or a planet consisting of lilac bushes and ladybugs – and that is all. And that would not be a good way to live. 

Microbiologists estimate that 10+31 virus particles exist in the oceans (that is a 10 with 30 zeroes after it). They vastly outnumber all living organisms on Earth. The oceans themselves are occupied by more viruses than there are stars in the observable sky. Whether alive or not, viruses are doing exceedingly well!

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a recovering pharmacist and writer-in-residence at Rx-Press.

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