By David Stone
The coronavirus pandemic heightened awareness of viruses, but few realize how many there are – more than any other living thing – or their vital role in human health and well-being.
Heightened Awareness of Viruses and What We Know
Biologists can’t agree that viruses are even living things because they cannot live independently. Their existence requires latching on to living cells and hijacking their machinery.
Viruses are not just a threat to health but are most often beneficial to humans and other animals. For example, viruses protect animals from harmful bacteria, keeping them in check. Viruses are so vital that they make up more than half of all cells in the human body.
Some viruses are so small that it takes 4,000 of them, side by side, to match the width of an average human hair. They may consist of a few genes or thousands and viruses may not necessarily look like living cells because some viruses lack a membrane and others mimic membranes. Viruses come in different sizes, shapes and forms, depending on the species. Biologists group them by types of viruses, but some viruses do not fall neatly into any category.
How Viruses Thrive
As viruses are so small and have only genes, they must infect living cells to reproduce themselves. The viruses that infect people are divided into different groups based on what type of living cells they need to reproduce in. This is the host range.
Some viruses infect different types of cells, while others only infect one type. For example, viruses that reproduce in human cells are known as human pathogens. Viruses that only reproduce in other animal cells are called animal viruses and viruses that can infect both humans and other animals are called zoonotic viruses.
Viruses are microscopic parasites that can only reproduce in living cells. They do not have their own metabolism, and they take what they need from you.
As parasitic life forms, viruses are successful at spreading because there are so many of them. Estimated virus particles amount to 1 million times more than the stars in the observable universe.
Viruses may cause minor inconveniences, such as a common cold or flu, but they can also produce more serious effects like HIV, Ebola and, of course, COVID-19. It is important to understand viruses because of their significant presence in our world and their ability to impact us in different ways.
But are they “alive…?”
Some scientists insist that viruses are not truly alive because they lack key characteristics of living organisms. All viruses contain either DNA or RNA. Their genetic material carries instructions for making more viruses, and they pass on their genes to their offspring viruses.
Viruses cannot survive without a host cell, which is why viruses are parasitic life forms; viruses must take over a host cell and use cellular machinery to reproduce.
The pandemic awareness of viruses as microscopic, parasitic life forms that mirror our genetic material is best exemplified by the Coronavirus pandemic. This virus highlighted the ease of viruses’ ability to spread and how viruses can evolve quickly enough to make an influenza pandemic possible.
The Coronavirus Pandemic
The coronavirus is a genus of viruses that are included within the Coronaviridae family. There are at least five viruses in this genus which include Human coronavirus, Avian coronavirus, Porcine coronavirus, Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus and SARS coronavirus. The viruses within this genus have been found in a variety of species, including bats.
Although they can infect a large number of mammals and birds, the viruses in the Coronaviridae family are most commonly associated with gastroenteritis. The Coronavirus pandemic taught us that viruses are found in multiple species and are severe enough to cause worldwide havoc and deaths.
A Variety of Viruses
Huge viruses like Mimiviruses and Megaviruses were discovered recently. Little is known about them, but what we do know is viruses are abundant, more important active than we think.
Huge viruses resemble small viruses but they are more related to amoebas than viruses. Their relationship with viruses is distant, evolved from Mimiviruses about 1 billion years ago. They have more in common with cells than viruses because of their size. Some are visible to the naked eye but still can’t survive without a host cell.
Viruses infect all forms of life on Earth and spread by changing their genetic material so cells will produce new viruses. Viruses’ first evolutionary form was likely an RNA-based organism that resembled viruses of today.
Most Abundant Entities on Earth
Viruses are the most abundant biological entities on Earth and viruses make up the majority of the biomass in our world, according to Dr. Peter Duesberg, Professor of Molecular Biology at the University of California Berkeley. They outnumber all other living things. Viruses can infect all forms of life.
The abundance of viruses has recently been confirmed by mathematical models developed by researchers at the University of Arizona in Tucson. They suggest that viruses are even more abundant than previously thought. Most viruses in our world resemble Mimiviruses.
Conclusion: Awareness of Viruses Matters
We must understand more about the viruses in our lives. After all, there are more of them than any living thing on Earth – and they’re not just what’s making us sick. They play an integral role in many aspects of human health and well-being. We must learn to work with these microscopic anomalies. One day they may help us out when there’s a new pandemic or virus outbreak.
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