We are entering yet another cold and flu season.
And some “experts” are warning it could be a rough one.
But allow me to bring a new narrative to the scene…
No one likes viruses. They’re capable of making us feel miserable—and can even lead to lethal pandemics (a reality we’re all well acquainted with by now).
But they have a VITAL IMPACT on the human race…
Predatory, yet important
If COVID-19 has shown us anything, it’s that we, humans, are just as vulnerable as any other living thing on this planet.
And in the end, viruses have emerged as our most dangerous predators.
They have caused the most notorious modern pandemics—including the current coronavirus crisis, as well as HIV/AIDS and the flu of 1918.
Viruses also played a sinister role in the European settlement of the Americas, thanks to smallpox, measles, and influenza—all responsible for decimating indigenous populations.
So, what is it that makes them so deadly?
Well, viruses are little packages of genetic material. And they use the metabolism of their hosts in order to reproduce. This makes them parasitic in nature, as they take everything from their hosts except their genetic codes.
Needless to say, this is a very successful strategy—the world is teeming with viruses.
In fact, you’ll find 100 billion virus particles in just one liter of sea water. And ten times that amount in just two pounds of soil.
In other words, viruses outnumber every other form of life on our planet. And they have adapted to attack every organism that exists.
But they do some good, too…
Diversity and necessary change
First, viruses fuel biodiversity. The ocean has so many different species of plankton because viruses tend to attack the most abundant varieties.
They’ve also had a hand in shaping evolution. Viral genomes can actually integrate into the host’s DNA, which the host can then use to its own advantage. (As much as 25 percent of the human genome may have viral origins!)
For example, mammals—including human beings—are able to procreate because a viral gene was modified to allow placentas to form. Plus, we can even credit viruses for human brain development.
The bottom line is: The science on viruses is weird and fascinating. And we will never have a virus-free world.
While this may not sound like a good thing… and while it may not always feel like a good thing—especially in the middle of cold, flu, and COVID-19—IT IS.
Because yes, viruses are lethal. But they’re also a critical source of diversity and necessary change.
At the very least, remembering this might help to make the tragedy and inconvenience of this historic crisis a little easier to endure.
Until next week,
“The aliens among us: How viruses shape the world.” The Economist, 08/22/2020. (economist.com/leaders/2020/08/22/how-viruses-shape-the-world)