There’s nothing funny about Covid-19, the Wu-Han-originated Coronavirus that has just been declared a global pandemic. But the explosive spread of the infection throws a lot of light on the state of human nature. A friend of mine said, recently, that, according to some 1960s comic books he had found in his loft, we should all be getting our personal flying cars by now; instead we are still persuading people to wash their hands after visiting the toilet…
Like any ‘aggressive’ aspect of nature, a virus can teach us a lot about life. The virus may sound like the work of the Devil, but it may also represent a key stage of the evolutionary path of life on Earth prior to the dominance of cellular organisms.
What is a virus and how is it different to a bacteria? One is an organism – the bacteria – and the other is not. On that basis, the bacteria is the more sophisticated, yet the most deadly of the two is the virus because if it succeeds in attaching itself to a living host, it will always cause a disease. A bacteria is not necessarily harmful and is formed from cells – the same structure of life that we all share… and the virus does not.
A cell has different functions. Firstly, it must persist for as long as it can, and be able to reproduce itself. a cell reproduces by dividing itself to form new cells. Each new cell contains a full copy of all its genetic material – its chromosomes, which are coils of DNA; the same DNA shared by all organic life on the planet.
The cell must be able to exchange material with its surroundings. Food is taken in, and waste is extruded – to form food for other, different kinds of cell, as in all nature.
Cells can also choose to die… Each ‘normal’ cell has a ‘death pathway’, called Apoptosis, which it initiates if it senses that its genetic material has been damaged, and it can no longer safely reproduce. The latest research into cancer cells indicate that the rogue cell is able to prevent the death pathway from being triggered – a little like a dictator locking himself into a nuclear weapons control room so that he can destroy the world. The rogue cell is then able to reproduce and create the ungoverned growth that is cancer. That so much of life remains orderly is a tribute to the usual integrity of the humble cell.
The normal cell is therefore a very stable and benign organism – even bacteria, most of which forms an essential catalyst in the vast cycles of life. The foundations of our evolutionary story are closely related to the simple cells of early ‘bacteria’; indeed, the planet that became the Earth we know was transformed around 2.3 billion years ago by single-celled cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) to create the oxygen-bearing atmosphere that now sustains life on the planet.
To achieve this, the cyanobacteria consumed methane – a far more deadly greenhouse gas – to produce the safer carbon dioxide which has become today’s ‘problem’. We worry about the levels of CO2, but, just prior to the industrial revolution (source Dr. Gary Vasey) the level of CO2 had dropped to a point where life would not have been able to continue. Industrialisation ‘fixed’ the problem.
Food for thought…
But, what about viruses?
Their structure is unlike the single-celled bacteria that transformed the Earth’s atmosphere. They comprise a protein shell that surrounds a nucleus of genetic material in the form of DNA or the simpler RNA – but none of it is alive. It is essentially a chemical missile designed to inject itself into the heart of another living cell. Once there, it uses the life of the host to make copies of itself, eventually bursting open and triggering whatever disease it carries. Viruses are found throughout our environment and all organisms can be affected by them. They are usually specific to a certain type of animal. Occasionally, such as happened with Covid-19, they cross the species boundary and become a deadly agent of disease for mankind.
But it may be that viruses hold a deeper link to our organic past, and that their presence in our world is not random, at all. They may even hold the key to some of our future.
All life on Earth is linked. All life on Earth began with the same cellular building blocks. We are all children of a single first-cell life form that crossed the boundary from molecular (chemical) to living, thereby laying down the rules and the elementary functions of life. This primary forebear has even been given a name: LUCA – Last Universal Common Ancestor.
Evolutionary biologists, who defined the founding principles on which organic life is built, established persistence as the primary determinant. The ability to endure – within a given form – is the building block of everything that follows. Above that is the ability to replicate that form. The cell does this, but the principle of replication, based on the genetic component at the cell’s heart, is the property of its DNA. In other words, the DNA, itself, is the material, the molecule, that made the transition from pre-organic to organic form; and therefore life.
The theories are constantly being challenged and updated, but biologists believe that the precursor to DNA was a similar but less sophisticated structure of spiral ‘genetic acid’ called RNA, and RNA is the predominant material at the centre of the virus, wrapped in its protein shell. In the envisaged RNA world, the primary need was to find a structure that could reliably reproduce itself.
It had always been believed that viruses had to come into existence after bacteria because they needed to be parasitic to the existing cellular world. That, is after all, how they exist today. Some scientists began to speculate that viruses might have existed before cellular life.
A major argument against this was the comparative size of the virus vs single cell. We are about 100,000 times bigger than our cells, a million times bigger than bacteria and 10 million times bigger than the average virus (source). Bigger meant more highly evolved, to a point, so the virus was assumed to have come much later.
Then, in 2013, evolutionary biologists Chantal Abergel and Jean-Michel Claverie of Aix-Marseille University found a sample of Siberian dirt that had been frozen for more than 30,000 years. It contained a new virus they named Pithovirus. (Source)
Pithovirus is the largest virus ever discovered and is even larger than some bacteria. Even stranger, Pithovirus has over 500 genes, some of which replicate the core function of cells. Most startlingly, and seeming to break all the rules, Pithovirus is able to reproduce itself, like a cell, without invading a host’s organism. Since then, more and more examples of ‘giant viruses’ have been found. There is increasing evidence that they may have preceded cellular life: that they are older than LUCA and have continued to evolve in their own right. As the two French researchers said: ‘It may be the reason we haven’t found them is that they are everywhere…’
Yet, they are not cellular. They appear to have followed a parallel evolutionary tree – in effect, a new form of life…
Covid-19 is not a giant virus. It’s a new-to-humans attacker of lungs, similar to any other flu-like germ. It’s very virulent and deadly and it may be about to change the world’s economic and politics. But the order of life to which it belongs may challenge the science of life as we know it. Who knows what miracles of medicine may result from that future study?
Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.
The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.