By Shafia London
It is not very often I get to use the deeply technical side of my tertiary training so I thought perhaps I could share in a series some very simple tidbits about viruses. As the coronavirus pandemic spreads across the globe, the term “virus” gets a lot of airplay. But what exactly are viruses? Let’s learn about viruses and how they work! This might better help us to understand what is happening globally and how we can protect ourselves and family.
In this mini-series, I want to talk about what a virus is, what viruses look like, how they infect us and how we can reduce the risk of infection and explain why you feel so miserable when a virus attacks your body!
WHAT IS A VIRUS?
If you could look at a virus, it is a tiny particle about one-millionth of an inch long. You cannot see it with your naked eye. Not even a light microscope. You need a powerful one called an electron microscope. Viruses are about a thousand times smaller than bacteria, and bacteria are much smaller than most human cells. A cell is a stand-alone living entity able to eat, grow and reproduce. Viruses are nothing like that.
Is a virus a living thing? Maybe. Sometimes. It depends on location. Unlike human cells or bacteria, viruses don’t contain the chemical machinery (enzymes) needed to carry out the chemical reactions for life. A virus must have a host cell (bacteria, plant or animal) in which to live and make more viruses. Outside of a host cell, viruses cannot reproduce itself or, for that matter, produce anything at all. For this reason, scientists differ on whether viruses are actually alive or not.
Most scientists agree that viruses are alive because of what happens when they infect a host cell and most agree it is the ultimate parasite.
A virus particle consist of two parts: 1) genetic material (DNA or RNA – the blueprint of life) 2) A coat of protein and in some viruses there is a 3rd part – a fat or oily layer. These parts are important to remember because it tells us how to fight them. For example those with that oily layer are destroyed by soap. The same way you use soap to wash an oily dish. Soap dissolves the fat membrane and the virus falls apart like a house of card. We will get back to this!
Viruses vary widely in their shape and complexity. Some look like round popcorn balls, while others have a complicated shape that looks like a spider.
Where do they come from? The origin of viruses is murky. There are 3 main theories – 1) They may be genetic elements that gained the ability to move between cells. 2)They may be remnants of previously free-living organisms and became parasites. 3) They may be the precursors of life as we know it. There is no right answer!
Next post we will look at how a virus moves from one person to another and how it attacks you!
Shafia London holds a BSc (1st Hons) Major Biochemistry and Double Minors in Communication and Human Resource Management from the University of the West Indies. She is a MSc Biochemical Engineering Graduate of the world-renowned University College London. Before returning to the Caribbean, she worked briefly as a researcher with University College London studying the use of Pichia pastoris in commercial vaccine production through recombinant DNA techniques. She then switched to business and is now completing and MBA and is the Commercial Manager, Banks Holdings Ltd group of companies – manufacturers of Banks beer, Deputy Beer, Plus, PineHill Dairy juices and Milks among other popular products