Science Saturday

Viruses Can Get Sick

Viruses are weird. They swim around, and reproduce, and act as parasites on any unlucky animal who happens to pick them up. But still, they're so dependent on their hosts that some biologists think they don't get to count as living beings on their own — more like random pieces of genetic coding that get in the way of the body's normal function. But the discovery of a virus infecting another virus has scientists questioning that belief.

Infection Inception

Before we get into the technical side of things, we'd just like to savor the image of an influenza virus laid up with a hot water bottle and a comically large thermometer. Ahh. That was oddly satisfying. Now for the bad news. The viruses that have been observed carrying an infection of their own weren't ever really a threat to human beings in the first place.

Mimiviruses are the titans of the viral world, which may seem a little odd since their preferred targets are amoeba. In fact, their name refers to their size: "mimi" is short for "microbe-mimicking." But because of their size, they are a prime target for this virus-of-viruses, which researchers nicknamed "Sputnik." Mimiviruses that had picked up a case of the Sputs were much less effective at infecting amoebae. So what's the mimi equivalent of chicken soup?

It's Alive!! ...Or Is It?

The question of whether or not viruses are alive goes back to almost as far as we've understood viruses to be a thing. In 1935, Wendell M. Stanley was able to show that viruses were nothing more than packages of biochemicals, lacking even the most basic metabolic functions. He won a Nobel Prize for his discovery — not in biology or medicine, but in chemistry. But according to virologist Jean-Michele Claverie, who helped discover Sputnik, the existence of viruses getting viruses proves unequivocally that viruses are alive. Whether or not the ability to get sick proves that mimiviruses are alive, we're just happy to see some viruses finally get their comeuppance.

Virus Evolution

Written by Reuben Westmaas August 4, 2017

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