Why do Viruses Even Exist?
This weekend I finished the book A Shot to Save the World by Gregory Zuckerman. The book chronicles the various stages in the development of the COVID-19 vaccine. As I was reading this incredible story the same questions kept running through my mind. What purpose do viruses serve in this world? They exist. They must serve some purpose, other than arbiters of chaos.
So, I sought to answer this question and found very little in the way of a sensible explanation.
So, I fashioned my own theory. This may all be BS. I have no way of proving this is the correct series of events. However, I really enjoy theorizing the “why’s” of this world. I’m sure there will be readers out there that disagree.
The Christian literalists will claim this is blasphemy as it is not how life was created in Genesis. The atheists will mock it by stating creation is random and there is no grand design. But there are a few things we can agree on. First, we live in a real world. There must be some process by which real things come into existence. Second, there was a time in which intelligence did not exist, and it exists now, so there must be a process from which it started. Finally, something from nothingness occurred because of the potential for nothingness to become something. Human beings spend a great deal of thought attempting to reconcile that moment. Reality, intelligence, and matter all exist, and they came from somewhere. This is not a discussion about reconciling the origins of the universe. It is about viruses. If we agree on that we can begin to walk along the “how” and the “why”. If you believe we live in some dream state or simulation, like the Matrix, you probably should stop here.
Sit back for a moment and imagine existing on earth a few billion years ago. You are a carbon-based molecule, something like guanine.
You are floating around in a giant ocean that covers the earth. By bonding covalently with nitrogen and oxygen you have formed a molecular structure that allows you to exist for more than a few seconds. You don’t know it, but you’re one of the components of genetic code.
There is chaos all around you. The surface of the ocean is bombarded with thousands of lightning strikes per minute breaking molecular structures and releasing their atoms to bond with others. The bottom of the ocean is being pressurized from the weight of water above and heated by an intense core of liquid iron deconstructing anything that happens to get heavy enough to sink towards it. The earth is surrounded by a massive electromagnetic field that is spinning as the earth spins. Each time it spins you flip back and forth between being positive and negatively charged. You’re literally being whipped around, electrocuted, heated, and then cooled, in this intensely chaotic environment with billions upon billions of other molecules that are in constant change. It’s a miracle you’ve survived as long as you have.
You’re a molecule so you don’t have any consciousness or perceived purpose. Your entire purpose may be just to spin in place or bind your electrons to other atoms. However, for the purposes of this story you’re compelled to simply exist for as long as you can in your current form. To do that you must grab onto something that is also stable. All you have is electrons to share. You can’t bind with something like sodium or lithium because they share their electrons too freely with other molecules. No loyalty. You can’t share with say something like iron because there are no electrons exposed to share. Prude. So, you find other carbon structures. In fact, you find quite a few other carbon structures because they can survive for a few seconds in this giant mess, just like you. So, the two of you share electrons and join forces.
You’re still quite vulnerable, but you realize you exist a few seconds longer when you combine with molecules like you. So, you do it a few more times. All the sudden something incredible happens and your chain folds in on itself as the positive and negative charges are attracted to each other.
Now the electromagnetic field whipping around the earth, and the strikes of lightly happening all around you do not affect you as much. So, you survive a few more seconds.
You are still quite vulnerable. Heat, oxidation, acidity, and intense charge easily break you down. You need a house. Something that can protect you from the elements. Fortunately, forming around you is another structure known as a phospholipid. Like you, the phospholipids aggregate together and form a circular membrane with an empty space on the inside. At the right moment, and with the right charge, the phospholipid membrane allows you to pass through to its core. You now have your house. You can survive much longer now.
You are probably thinking…this was supposed to be about viruses. Well, I’m getting there.
The process above is happening many billions of times per minute all over the planet. There is an almost infinite number of structures being made and unmade in rapid sequence. The structures that can withstand the elements have fitness. They begin to accumulate and become dominant chemical structures.
You are happy in your little phospholipid house floating along when all the sudden another phospholipid house bumps into yours. Your front door flies open and into your space comes a molecular structure like yours. It immediately combines with you and your chain of molecules grows, collapse and folds into a stable structure. You are now something entirely different than you were before. The new structure is stable and survives. It could be argued that this was a virus. A phospholipid bilayer, some genetic information, and the capability to share that information is all that it is. The shared structure has improved fitness against the elements. It survives longer than the other structures around it and has more potential to continue surviving.
Even though you are well protected, your phospholipid house continues to let molecules into your home. Just like you a few minutes ago, these molecules are hoping to survive for as long as possible, but they are not stable. As you float around you come across various temperatures. Sometimes you are very hot, and your structure unfolds. This leaves enough room for the other molecules to combine and copy your structure. Now you are a folded two-sided structure, commonly known as a double helix. Your molecular structure is very stable, and it can open when warmed, and close when cooled. This happens repeatedly until your living room is bursting with copies of yourself. Part of your phospholipid house breaks off with one of the copies. Your structure has reproduced.
Viral attacks like this are clues into the process that built the genetic codes that make up living things. Their entire purpose is to share genetic information. Carbon based molecules in chains moving up a hierarchy of stability with eventual replication and division. For an organism that can survive on its own, say a bacterium, or a human being, viral attacks can be awfully disruptive. Our genetic information doesn’t need to be changed. However, if you were an unstable genetic structure 4 billion years ago with little hope of surviving for another 60 seconds, it is likely you would take a gamble and let some random code into your little house.
Our understanding of the scientific origins of life began with Watson and Crick discovering the DNA double helix in the 1950's. Our first glimpse into the workings of life and how it is created. This was a scientific pandora's box that eventually led to many discoveries including mRNA.
Before it burst on the scene in 2020, mRNA was disregarded as a modality to treat disease for years due to its instability in a chaotic environment like a human body. mRNA is a single stranded, often unfolded, form of genetic information that is easily degraded, chopped up, and destroyed. It would only last a few seconds and then disappear.
For the decades before it became mainstream, researchers worked tirelessly to stabilize this molecule. First, they added a specific structure onto the ends of the strand to stabilize it and help it fold. It would now last a few minutes, but not long enough to have any therapeutic benefit.
Next, a different lab discovered how to synthesize lipid nano particles. These would operate as protective barriers for mRNA. Nano sized phospholipid layers that could protect important molecular structures, but when they bumped into other similar phospholipid bilayers they would open and share their contents. Now it could protect itself from the elements for a longer period of time.
Finally, researchers had to figure out how to manufacture these structures on a massive scale. To do that they had to find a solution and temperature to keep them stable until they could make it to the end user.
Does this process sound familiar? I imagine the steps these researchers discovered are very similar to the journey many mRNA and DNA particles went through all the years ago. It took roughly three decades to figure this out in the lab. There were many different labs involved. Lots of successes and failures. Careers built and destroyed attempting to make this happen. All to create something far greater than a simple medicine. mRNA may end up being incredibly powerful technology as our ability to manipulate it advances. A remarkable achievement of human ingenuity.
As I was reading the book I couldn’t help thinking about viruses. We have come full circle with these prehistoric structures. They are the simplest example of the exchange of information that exist. At one time they may have been extremely vital in the creation of life. As our genetic structure has climbed the hierarchy of stability it has developed a very complex system to defend against any threat to it's integrity. Our genetic code has evolved to a level in which it can originate its own intelligence. We now use these prehistoric structures to defend ourselves against them. On a fundamental level, the created have become creators.