Evolution

Is COVID-19 alive?

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At Oscillations, Suzan Mazur interviews a virologist, Luis Villarreal, Luis Villarreal is founding director of University of California, Irvine’s Center for Virus Research and UCI Professor Emeritus, Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, who offers in an interview a fascinating neither/nor approach to that question:

It is true that it does have protein surrounding the nucleic acid and a lipid around it, like pretty much all RNA viruses. And it’s true that once it is in its transmission extracellular form, it is just a biological entity with none of the characteristics of life. However, it’s also true and equally true that once joined with the cell, the virus starts to program that cell to do what the virus wants or needs and is part of the living system of the host itself. So it’s both dead and alive depending on the circumstance. That the virus is not alive is a conservative, old view and not based on our current understanding of an enormous influence in all living entities due to virus activity and virus colonization.

Suzan Mazur, “Virologist Luis Villarreal: “Leery” of Covid-19 Models—Vaccine Possible Year’s End” at Oscillations

Villarreal and Mazur introduce a term that will be new to many— and relevant to viruses like COVID-19: quasispecies

Suzan Mazur is a science journalist who has chronicled the rise of the Third Way of evolution, biologists who are dissatisfied with doctrinaire Darwinism but not persuaded by anything like intelligent design, researching a number of leads. Her most recent book is Darwin Overthrown: Hello, Mechanobiology

3 Replies to “Is COVID-19 alive?

  1. 1
    Seversky says:

    Susan Mazur should find this informative and it even mentions “paradigm”.

    Are viruses alive? The replicator paradigm sheds decisive light on an old but misguided question

    “Alcohol-based hand sanitizers kill most types of bacteria, viruses and fungi in a few seconds” – claims a random ad in a family magazine. Regardless of the technical (in)accuracy of this statement, its anonymous author(s) has unwittingly answered, in the affirmative, a question that over several decades had been debated by many scientists: Are viruses alive? The logic here is simple and arguably undefeatable: you cannot kill something that is not alive. Much the same argument was made by a science writer in the top scientific journal Nature, on the occasion of the discovery of virophages, viruses that parasitize on other, giant viruses of amoeba. The same simple reasoning applies: if something can be sickened and eventually brought to death, it surely is alive to begin with (Pearson 2008). In an influential conceptual paper stimulated by the discovery of giant viruses and virophages that parasitize on them, Raoult and Forterre classify viruses as one of the two fundamental categories of organisms (capsid-encoding organisms, in contrast to the ribosome-encoding organisms, i.e. cellular life forms), with the obvious implication that viruses are living beings (Raoult and Forterre 2008). However, the opposite view has been forcefully propounded as well: viruses cannot be considered alive because of their inability to reproduce without a cellular host (Lopez-Garcia 2012; Moreira and Lopez-Garcia 2009). Each of these viewpoints certainly reflects distinct, important features of viruses: they combine “animate” (reproduction and the ensuing evolution) and “inanimate” features (lack of autonomy, existence of an inert state). This dichotomy fuels the perpetual “life vs non-life” debate among researchers, and even more so among scientific journalists and interested members of the public.

    Certainly, the answer to the question “Are viruses alive?” depends on the definition of life or of the “state of being alive”. Although this issue has been pondered at length for centuries, there is no generally accepted definition of life or “aliveness” (Trifonov 2012, 2011), and it has been argued that such definitions are neither feasible nor needed (Bruylants et al 2010; Koonin 2012; Szostak 2012). Simple examples from different areas of biology show that a sharp boundary between the living and non-living (or animate vs inanimate) entities is but an illusion. Growing bacteria and archaea are certainly alive. However, many if not most of them enter a dormant (persistent) state under starvation and other forms of stress (Lewis 2010; Wood et al 2013). The dormant cells have greatly reduced metabolic activity and are either able or unable to resume growth and division depending on the environmental conditions as well as random factors. Are dormant cells alive or not? Intuitively people are inclined to answer “yes”: dormant cells are clearly not dead, because we can resume their growth under given conditions. But, from a biochemical standpoint, they dramatically differ from truly alive cells. Therefore, dormant cells exist in some third, “inert” state that is neither truly “alive” nor inanimate. Even more dramatically, Gram-positive bacteria, such as Bacilli and Clostridia, as well as cyanobacteria, sporulate under adverse conditions (Adams 2000; Galperin et al 2012; Paredes et al 2005). Spores are virtually inert biochemically and again, may or may not come back to active reproduction. Are they alive or dead? Or do they represent the third state as well? Thus, the “dead-alive” dichotomy in the classification of biological entities seems to present unsolvable conandra whereby the borders of life cannot be clearly defined.

  2. 2
    polistra says:

    Maybe alive isn’t the best variable. Viruses don’t eat and poop and breathe and mate, so they aren’t living things.

    Viruses are more like signals. What is the content of their signal? Propaganda. An animal successfully infected by a virus obeys the commands given by the virus, joining the crowd of Influencers (etymology of influenza…) who then propagate (etymology again) the signal beyond the original source.

  3. 3
    awstar says:

    per quote in OP

    So it’s both dead and alive depending on the circumstance.

    It’s neither dead nor alive. It’s evil. All it can do is tear down that which is alive until both the target and the virus are both dead. It can’t improve that which is alive to make better. Same difference between lies and truth.

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