I <3 Viruses

Omg seriously? First you say gross bacteria are amazing and now you’re saying terrifying viruses are lovable? You must be crazy..

Yes, I do love viruses, and it is terrifying when you’re afflicted with a viral infection that harms your health – but there is an aspect of viruses that I think every human should appreciate.. and even love! Let’s get into what and why 🙂

 

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What are they?

Viruses are non-living agents that can only replicate and do work inside the cells of living organisms. They do not have a cellular structure or metabolism, but they do have genes and do evolve by the forces of natural selection. Often you might see a virus represented as a collection of genes located inside of a protein case. You then would see animations in your biology books of tetrahedral looking heads with legs crawling around and then injecting their DNA into a host cell.

Viruses can be found everywhere – plants, animals, the air, the ground, and everywhere in you and on you! Last time I talked about bacteria, I reported that there are 10 (ten) times as many bacterial cells in you and on you as there are human cells. With viruses, there are reported to be 10 (ten) fold more than the bacteria! They spread in many ways, including contact via skin, oral, sexual, respiratory, or direct transmission through carriers.

What’s truly interesting about Viruses is that even though they are non-living, they have the ability to inject their machinery into a living cell, take it over, and use the living cell to replicate and create more of its self. They have been a part of humanity since the very beginning. Today we have a certain perception about viruses, just like we have of bacteria — that they somehow are all bad for us, and only hurt us. If they have been with us since the very beginning and can do all of these amazing take overs, why aren’t humans extinct? The truth is, just like our bacteria friends, viruses can be at peace with, and even be beneficial to humans.

 

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Love at first sight

Human beings have an incredible system of viruses called a virome. This virome encompasses all of the viruses that are in us and on us at any time. These viruses can infect us, stay dormant within us, and even integrate into our human genome (these are called retroviruses). The gastrointestinal tract is the location of the most diverse and complex microbial and viral ecosystems in the human body. Through sequencing technology, we can follow these microbes and track how they change over our life times, and affect our health. It appears (according to recent research) that a symbiotic relationship develops with the virome at a very young age! In fact, during the first two years of life, the environment that the human resides in, and the diet that they grow accustomed to shapes the makeup of the bacterial and viral communities in the gut. If these communities develop at such a young age, it would only make sense that they influence the health of the human host throughout its life – changing with the environmental and dietary changes. So you see, it is truly love at first sight.. (like literally when you open your eyes after birth the stuff is already there!). Is this love all good, or can it hurt like a messed up deep dish pizza? Now that we know these communities exist, how and when do they affect us?

Do you even gym?

Your immune system exists in a sort of equilibrium with everything inside your body. There are things it recognizes as “self” (your vital organs), and it recognizes things that are part of your bodies ecosystem (virome and microbes). It is because of this equilibrium that your immune system does not try to eliminate everything it does not recognize as “self”. But wait, why not kill off those horrible viruses and bacteria? It’s actually wonderful that your immune system does NOT do that. The virome plays an incredible role in maintaining the homeostasis (or stability) of your intestines and body. It does this by stimulating low-level continuous immune responses without causing symptoms to be noticed by you. In other words, the virus is continually making your immune system respond to it throughout its life inside your body. This is so important and genius in my opinion -> your immune system in essence is continually building its self up to respond to these viruses. It’s like a gym that does the workout for you automatically, and all you have to do is remember how to do the workout for the next time you really need to bulk up.

You might ask why the immune system just does not get rid of these viruses. Well, it turns out that the viruses also have a mechanism (it involves bacteria in you as well!) by which they can adapt and counter the immune responses, essentially learning as they go — just like the immune system. It’s a constant back and forth, and only makes your immune system stronger! If you’re interested in all of the technical details behind this, check out the paper – made available on uCloud for academic affiliates – as we wont fill page after page on the details here.

p.s : I tried to find an image of a virus working out in a gym, but I wouldn’t recommend anyone google image that stuff.. no seriously don’t.

Now what?

Viruses, unlike previous prevalent theory – do not always have to weaken, or harm the cell (and by extension the individual) they are hosted in. They can actually improve ones health, and give a certain sense of immunity to outside influences. That’s not to say it for certain cannot be harmful. Depending on the type of viruses that you acquire, some can give negative impacts to the hosts health (see pathogenic). Even with that one negative aspect, our bodies have developed sophisticated systems to combat negative effects by our virome and bacteria roomates. Getting back to the good things however, if there is anything you want to take away from this piece — it should be the following :

  • Our human virome is a collection of viruses found in or on us. These viruses can integrate into our genes and sustain constant immune responses, keeping our immune system in shape, and providing benefits to our genetic makeup.
  • Remember that the virome is composed of viruses that cannot survive on their own, they must have a host cell — bacteria in our body acts as a perfect host for these viruses, implicating a special relationship between viruses and bacteria in us. The viruses use the bacteria, which in turn provide for us.
  • Our gut (intestinal system) is the site of most of this virome community, indicating that our intestinal system is of vital importance to our health. Our diet, environment, and intestinal functions can determine our overall health throughout our life.

This study of our virome was released in 2014, meaning its a relatively new train of thought. The next phase of this exciting research is to be taken in metagenetics, or the study of genetic impact the microbiome (includes the virome) has on the host (your genes). This way we can see what functions in  our genetic make up are affected by the microbiome that resides in us.

 

 

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Article is part of the “Science is s___” series on umayrsufi.com 

 

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