By David Clements/Special to Langley Advance Times
When the COVID-19 pandemic was declared by the World Health Organization in March, the number of human cases was a very small fraction of what they are now.
Likewise, our collective respect for the impact of viruses like COVID-19 has grown exponentially.
In my first year biology classes, I used to give viruses a slight nod when I discussed the properties of life.
Other than that mention, I did not cover viruses at all.
This year, I have spent weeks delving into virus biology with my classes, even though I – like most scientists – am not convinced they are a life form.
My textbook refers to them as “borrowed life” because they borrow much of what they need from their host.
Properties of life such as self-regulation that even simple bacteria possess are only exhibited by viruses because they borrow the machinery and the membranes of the cells they infect.
However, one of the most impressive things about them is that they truly have lived up to their name, and have “gone viral!”
I am not just talking about the particular virus causing the current pandemic in the human population.
Viruses are everywhere, and attack almost every form of life.
Are you ready for the number?
It is estimated that there are 10 to the power of 31 viruses on earth.
If you can’t comprehend very well what that means, consider this: the number of viruses is 100 million times the number of stars in the known universe.
Needless to see, it is not just us that suffers from viruses – you can find them in bacteria, animals, plants, fungi, and algae.
My class and I discussed the bunchy top virus that threatens banana crops all over the world.
Once you get a big infestation in a plantation, generally the best prescription is to destroy the plantation and start again.
So why were they created? What good are they?
My textbook pointed out the value of viruses in understanding how DNA works, as they provide an outstanding research tool for scientists.
There’s not much to a virus than its DNA (or RNA).
Yet their tiny, simple form can have a big impact.
My students came up with another reason for their existence: to make us stronger.
In biological terms, making us stronger means building up our immune system.
Maybe there are many other ways the current pandemic is making us stronger – we can only hope!
– David Clements PhD, is a professor of biology and environmental studies at Trinity Western University
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