Thursday, August 28, 2014

Ebola & Emergent Viruses: Real Aliens

:"Pandora" Rackham Public Domain Image
A virus is a single strand of proteins. The ebola virus, an RNA virus, is composed of only 7-9 proteins.

Science cannot decide if viruses are alive or not.

Viruses might even be alien life forms, come here on some meteorite.

Or, they might not be lifeforms at all.

Some viruses can live for eons in an inert state, just waiting for a living host to come along. Once inside the host, they 'come alive' and reproduce themselves inside living cells, so vigorously that the cell ruptures and sends the (now seemingly living) virus in the bloodstream of the host.

From our perspective, we say the host has contracted an illness, is sick, but what's really happening is the virus is feeding off the host in order to reproduce itself. A really persistent virus will jump to other hosts while it does this so that even if the original host dies, it can keep reproducing in other infected bodies.

A virus exists to reproduce itself. That is its sole purpose.

Ebola virus is a scary damn virus, period. If you aren't scared of the ebola virus, you don't understand viruses and you don't understand ebola.

But what if I told you that the reason ebola is becoming such a problem is that our familiar Western ways of doing business are causing viruses that once hid in other organisms in self-contained ecosystems (like rain forests), are now forced to find new 'food' when those ecosystems are destroyed for profit?

That happens to be exactly what is going on with ebola, and it's happening with more and more strange new illnesses that 'jump species' (move from an animal host to a human one) when their habitat is destroyed.

Ebola spillovers into humans tend to take place near logging facilities.

Viruses like ebola that jump into humans for the first time are called 'emergent viruses', and they have steadily been growing as a problem and a threat over the last 50 years. Globalization has accelerated the process enormously.

Although our chances of being wiped out as a species by ebola virus are currently small, our chances of being wiped out or nearly wiped out by some other emergent virus are very high. When it comes to global pandemic, the question is not if, but when.

I find all this fascinating, not just because it is dark and scary (it is), but because it shows how connected every living organism in the world is to every other organism. It's a balance: remove one bit (like in Jenga) and the whole system falls apart and then rearranges itself.

Will we be a part of the new arrangement?

That is up to us, in large measure. So far, it doesn't look good.

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