March 26, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

We Are Filled with Viruses

Viruses have a bad connotation.  We immediately think of the ones that cause disease: “I’ve got a virus,” you say when feeling under the weather.  Actually, you have trillions of them all the time, even in the best of health.  A single gram of stool sample can have 10 billion of them!  What does that mean?  Scientists are only beginning to find out.
    One thing it means is that they can’t be all bad.  Elizabeth Pennisi reported in Science this week about work at the University of British Columbia and Washington University to explore the human virome.1  She began her report,

In the past decade, scientists have come to appreciate the vast bacterial world inside the human body.  They have learned that it plays a role in regulating the energy we take in from food, primes the immune system, and performs a variety of other functions that help maintain our health.  Now, researchers are gaining similar respect for the viruses we carry around.

Bacteria have been easier to count than the tiny viruses.  Many of our internal viruses are bacteriophages that invade and kill bacteria.  This suggests they play a role in keeping the brakes on bacterial infections.  “For every bacterium in our body, there’s probably 100 phages,” Pennisi wrote.  The number of virus species identified in stool samples of healthy adults varied from 52 to 2773.  “The viromes varied significantly from one individual to the next; they were even more diverse than the bacterial communities within the same individuals,” Pennisi reported.  “But each person’s viral community remained stable over the course of the year.”  That is, unless they go on a different diet or eating regimen; then the viromes change.  But people who eat the same foods tend to converge on virus profiles.  Researchers also found that infants with fevers had more viruses than healthy infants.
    We are full of viruses, in other words, but we don’t know what they all do.  This is “a true frontier” of research, with much to learn.  “Ultimately, those viruses are incredibly important in driving what’s going on” one scientist from the University of British Columbia said.  It’s not enough to know your bacteria; you have to know the viruses that interact with them. 

1.  Elizabeth Pennisi, “Microbiology: Going Viral: Exploring the Role Of Viruses in Our Bodies,” Science, 25 March 2011: Vol. 331 no. 6024 p. 1513, DOI: 10.1126/science.331.6024.1513.

It’s always been intriguing that viruses look incredibly well designed.  Some bacteriophages look like lunar landing capsules, legs and all.  Scientists have learned that some viruses have shells like hard plastic (05/07/2004) and pack their DNA into their capsids with motors generating remarkable force, in an orderly manner (03/20/2007, 12/30/2008).  They are also extremely effective in finding their target cells, inserting their DNA, and commandeering the genetic machinery to make copies of themselves.
    Evolutionists don’t know what to do with viruses.  They are not considered transitional forms between molecules and life.  Intelligent design would describe their design and predict that they have functions, but would be at a loss to explain harmful viruses.  It takes Biblical creation to explain that they were probably designed for good originally, but some became harmful because of the Fall due to sin.  The analogy might be to a science fiction movie where robotic servants went berserk, or to the broom of the sorcerer’s apprentice that multiplied and could not be stopped.  Sometimes a single mutation can turn a beneficial bacterium into a disease-causing terror; the same could be true with viruses.
    Maybe they were intended to be regulators of bacteria.  Maybe they were designed to convey information to the body about new environments, and were equipped to copy themselves to spread the word so that the body could be prepared.  Who knows?  This is, after all, a frontier of research.  For philosophers, it’s noteworthy that we are stumbling onto a reality right around us – right within us – about which we have been largely oblivious, with the potential to dramatically change our understanding of nature.
    Given that an athlete running the high hurdles in the peak of health is carrying around trillions of viruses, intuition suggests that most of what they do for us is good.  The scientific research appears poised to find many beneficial functions for our viral passengers.  It happened with bacteria; it took society a long time to change the emotional response from “germs… uggh!” with the householder running to get the antibacterial spray, to an appreciation of the many good things bacteria do for us.  Now we look differently upon our bacterial passengers.  We have learned they outnumber our own cells, and are learning that our viral passengers outnumber the bacteria 100 to one.  Expect amazing things to be discovered about these tiny, mysterious machines.

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