10 Reasons to ♥ Viruses

They were and still remain our partners in research and can at times provide therapy instead of disease by acting as enemies of our enemies.

We all know why we hate viruses and the list is pretty long, but sometimes even the most frightful things may come in handy. I started off by trying to list the most gruesome viruses and the maladies they cost us, but then it struck me that enough light has been shed on their dark side and perhaps exploring their nicer aspects would be more exciting. So here's my compilation of ten reasons to love them. 'Achoo'

1. They assist us in research

'Our Enemies Are Our Greatest Teachers,' this indeed defines our relationship with viruses. Over several years of research, these microscopic menaces have helped us in unwrapping the molecular underpinnings of life. Perhaps the most vital instance of human-virus collaboration is the discovery that our genetic material is made of DNA. It’s a well-known fact today (thanks to CSI) but even after 75 years of its discovery, scientists had no clue about DNA's role in living organisms. In fact proteins were the favorite contenders for the title and it wasn't until the late 1930s that scientists finally got it right. One crucial experiment in this regard was done using viruses called bacteriophages that attack bacteria and transfer their genes into them to make new viruses. During this infection cycle, only DNA gets transferred, proving that genetic information is indeed written in the language of DNA.

2. They can kill Bacteria
One technology that uses viruses against bacteria is phage therapy and involves the therapeutic use of phages to treat bacterial infections. Studies indicate that these live viruses can control many infections plus bioweapons and toxins such as Anthrax and botulism. They are more specific than common drugs, protect the beneficial bacteria in our bodies and cause fewer side effects. They are currently being used to treat bacterial infections that don't respond to conventional antibodies. Researchers are also working on developing vaccines utilizing phages and their products.

3. They Help Us Fight Disease
Our immune system is equipped to fight diseases and often inspires researchers to develop more effective drugs. In one such attempt to mimic the immune system, scientists use bacteriophages to produce specific antibodies that can treat cancer and other maladies. It’s called Antibody Phage Display and allows the selection of specific antibodies and the genes encoding them. This technology has revolutionized drug discovery and is being used by many pharmaceutical industries today. So by teaming up with viruses, we can replicate the effects of the immune system in the comfort of our laboratories.

4. A Lot of Our DNA Comes From Viruses
You may not be quite the human you think you are. Viral elements are a large part of the genetic material of almost all organisms,' said Dr. Sharp, who won a Nobel Prize for elucidating the details of our genetic code. 'We humans are well over 50 percent viral,' he said. Scientists initially categorized these virus-like

genes as 'Junk DNA.' However, recent studies show that higher organisms have selected these viral imprints and molded them into the source code for major biological features, e.g. some genes involved in the growth of the mammalian placenta have a clear viral character as do the genes underlying the recombinant powers of our immune system - ironically the very system that helps us fight viruses.

5. They Are the Unsung Heroes of Evolution
Viruses have been high jacking mammalian genomes for more than 40 million years. It might shock Darwin that our genomes share elements from viruses. Some 8% of human DNA represents fossil retroviral genomes. Retroviruses are RNA viruses that convert their RNA into DNA to insert it into the host genome. In this way they evade the immune system and manage to reproduce. Perhaps the most notorious retrovirus is the HIV. But apart from HIV, there are many viruses that do the same, creating the diversity essential to evolution. Insertion of viral DNA can do more than just harm; it can shape new evolutionary paths by changing what an animal does.

6. They Play a Vital Role in tackling Global Warming
Our oceans are flooded with uncountable viruses and these play a vital role in recycling carbon and nitrogen. It starts with sea-borne bacteria degrading carcasses in the sea and bottling the nitrogen produced, within themself. If this were the end, then no other organisms would have access to nitrogen. However, viruses attack these bacteria, making them explode and hence freeing the nitrogen. The production of these viruses also requires tons of carbon, thus they act as carbon sinks and can have a vital effect on carbon emissions and global warming.

7. They might Cure Cancer
A few viruses kill cancer cells. Reolysin is a drug developed from one such naturally occurring, harmless virus, Reovirus. It’s capable of replicating inside cancer cells and killing them, however in healthy cells an antiviral protein called PKR neutralizes it. This happens because most cancers like breast, lung and prostate have a genetic defect that switches off PKR. This viral therapy is quite promising as it doesn’t harm normal cells, unlike other treatments.

8. They have Untapped Potential
They are everywhere, from higher organisms (animals, plants,) to the organisms that live off these organisms (bacteria, parasites, fungi). Remarkably there are even viruses that infect other viruses; e.g. Sputnik virus that infects a rare giant virus called Mamavirus. When Crain Venter, the human genome pioneer examined samples from the Sargasso Sea, he found 1800 new species of virus, harboring more than 1.2 million genes and only a millimeter of water from Lake Plussee in Germany was found to contain 254 million virus particles. This repertoire of viruses can prove helpful in research and provide innovative solutions to medical dilemmas as there are more bacteria-killing viruses in the biosphere than all other life-forms put together.

9. The Make Scientists go GAGA
Scientists can’t decide whether they are living or non-living or lie in a limbo between the two states. When viruses were first discovered they were considered biologically alive. However, this perception changed in

1935 when the tobacco mosaic virus was shown to lack the mechanisms necessary for metabolic functions. So what are the criteria for being tagged alive? Well, living organisms can reproduce, obtain energy, grow and respond to their environment.

Viruses can only reproduce inside a living cell; else they exist in a dormant state. Once they infect a cell, they utilize its cellular machinery to reproduce. Is that enough to qualify them as living? Also, living organisms don’t just reproduce; they acquire fuel to drive cellular mechanisms. Viruses however rely on their host cells to fuel their reproduction. As for growth, they don’t get bigger but some scientists argue that the process of viral assembly is viral growth. Lastly, living things respond to their environments and so do viruses. Like bacteria they rely on genetic mechanisms to evolve and ensure their own survival. So seemingly they live to reproduce and unless they get a chance to do that, they play dead!

10. They Haven't Always Been Parasites
There’s a possibility that viruses once had an independent existence. Today's viruses have a symbiotic relationship with higher organisms. But evolutionary studies speculate that ancient viruses were perhaps different than their followers. All living organisms are categorized into three groups, Eukarya, Bacteria and Archae. Most virologists now believe that viruses arose as independent life forms, probably prior to bacteria. In that case parasitism developed at a later stage and viruses were once quite harmless creatures.

So next time you're hit by a viral flu, don’t be too quick to judge them because there’s definitely more to them than what meets the eye.



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