Not that I spend my time modifying the genetic bagagge of plants or animals. I spend my time trying to determine what makes leukemic cells grow faster and how -- which does mean, yes, that I am researching on ways to stave off cancer. And when I put it that way, I feel like a superhero!
Back on topic. It wouldn't be fair if I didn't share my own sciency fear.
|Photo by Sebastian Kaulitzki|
It's not a particular virus that scares me. It's the way viruses are built. It's both fascinating and utterly terrifying.
Viruses are death machines on a microscopical level. The basic structure is a DNA or RNA strand, with the virus' information on it, protected by a capside (proteins). The virus, through many different ways, will try to force its DNA (or RNA, but I'll stop repeating RNA now) into a cell and hijack all its resources.
Okay, a parasite like any other, no?
The scary thing comes in the virus' simple structure. I just explained it to you with a single sentence! One DNA strand and proteins. Yes, there are variations, but the simplest virus won't need anything else to invade and duplicate.
There isn't a single DNA base wasted on a virus. Everything it needs to take over your cell is comprised in its strand, and the strand itself is super short. The smallest has 3,569 bases and needs only 20 minutes to kill a cell (it's a bacteria cell, we're safe!). The biggest has 1,181,404 bases.
To compare, an E. coli (one of the simplest and most studied bacteria) has 4,600,000 and the human genome is 3,200,000,000. If you do the math, that means that even the biggest virus has a genome that is 2709 times smaller than ours.
When a virus invades a cell, it forces it to create a hundred copies (on average) of itself. That means there are suddenly 100 more viruses in the environment that can invade other cells. And on it goes.
Think about how efficient this is. If I had to find a way to wipe out any living organism, I'd tamper with a virus until it could infect and kill said organism.
Yes, we have defences. So does bacterias, and yet in 48 hours, phages (virus that solely infect bacterias) wipe out half the bacteria population.
And that, my friends, is why my villain is a genetic engineer*. Because I'm terrified of what a genius could do if he managed to bypass ethic commitees and surveillance to develop his own super-viruses.
There you go! Nice fodder for the weekend, eh?
*If you're going to use viruses or other such things in your novel, I invite you to do the research for specific effects/modes of infection. OR, if you know what you want but aren't sure what viruses would do that, you can send yours truly an e-mail. I did have a whole class on the subject, and I'm aware how confusing it can get even when it's your domain.