Blurring Boundaries: Viral biology and interconnected reality

interconnected reality

The coronavirus pandemic has dramatically changed the way people live, both individually and collectively. But has it altered the way we think about the basic fabric of our lives?

Not yet.

I think it should, though—especially in ways that strengthen the vision of interconnected creation outlined by Pope Francis in Laudato si’.

Influenced by literal readings of Scripture as well as an implicitly Cartesian picture of the world, many Americans operate with three sets of sharp distinctions:

  1. between living and nonliving beings;
  2. between different types of living beings, arranged in a rigid hierarchy; and
  3. between inert matter and vibrant mind or soul.

But if we start to consider how viruses operate, all three sets of distinctions begin to dissolve, and interconnections take centre stage.

What is a virus?

It’s an aggressive snippet of DNA (or RNA in the case of retroviruses).

Many viruses operate by fusing themselves with the outer membrane of the target cell and then working their way toward the nucleus.

Once there, they take over the cell’s genetic mechanisms, reprogramming the cell to make more virions (single particles of the virus) rather than fulfil its normal functions.

Eventually, the virions overwhelm and rupture the host cell.

Newly liberated, the virions go on to seek other cells to infiltrate, moving from cell to cell and from organism to organism.

Does that mean a virus is alive?

That’s a difficult question. Some scientists say no, they are more like chemistry sets. Unlike viruses, living beings autonomously consume, process, and expend energy.

Moreover, a virus cannot reproduce on its own through a process of cell division, in the way a simple amoeba can.

But others argue that a virus is alive, or at least intermittently alive. It may not reproduce itself, but it does actively organize its own reproduction.

Maybe there is a middle ground: in a fascinating article in Scientific American (December 2004), Luis P. Villarreal argues there is a “spectrum…between what is certainly alive and what is not.”

Villarreal, the founding director of the Center for Virus Research at UC Irvine, asks us to think of life as “an emergent property of a collection of certain nonliving things.”

Viruses may not be alive, but they are lively

Many people also assume there are rigid boundaries between various forms of living beings, whether that assumption comes from the first chapters of Genesis or a simplistic understanding of evolution.

Evolution’s travelling salesmen, viruses peddle their genetic wares near and far.

They think that bacteria are one thing, plants yet another, animals a different thing, and people something else entirely.

They also assume that the development from simple to complex life forms is neat and linear so that each more complex being that emerges includes everything in the category below and adds something new and bigger, like a set of Russian dolls.

But viruses show us that the development of complex life forms is itself staggeringly complex and even messy.

Villarreal notes that between 113 and 223 genes present in both the genetic makeup of bacteria and human beings are absent in intermediate forms of life, like yeast.

He suspects that those genes did not disappear and then re-evolve, but rather were somehow inserted into both bacteria and human beings by the same virus. Evolution’s travelling salesmen, viruses peddle their genetic wares near and far.

They create surprising links between vastly different types of living entities, all of which are connected by their dependence on the same four building blocks that make up the DNA of all living things.

Finally, viruses challenge the idea that non-living matter is inert and static. Viruses may not be alive, but they are lively. And really, so is all matter. Inertness is an illusion.

In the last century, we have learned that each atom of matter is full of motion and energy, as electrons circle the atom’s protons, neutrons, and nucleus.

Chemical reactions occur not only in lab experiments but inside human beings. Continue reading

Additional reading

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