Friday, June 10, 2011

The Science that Creeps ME Out

Yesterday I asked you what aspect of science you found the most terrifying. Creepy. Shiver-inducing. I love the answers I got. It's fascinating how some of your fears are another person's great love, and how many are directly related to my field.

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.

Killing machines.

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.


  1. Viruses are awesome and super scary. When swine flu was all the rage, my hospital was sending out lots and lots of information about it and its potential future. It helped to inspire parts of my zombie novel.

    But I also read, a while back and I have no idea where I was reading it, that a group of scientists were working on modifying the HIV virus, basically hollowing out part of its strand and replacing it with whatever work they'd done on stem cells so that once in the body, the shell of the HIV virus would replicate super fast to repair major damage inside the body. It was kind of awesome. I wish I remembered more of the details.

  2. Viruses are my sciencey fear as well, even though I don't know a thing about them! It's freaky how they can adapt and mutate so well, and laugh in the face of antibiotics. Super scary resistant viruses are, I guess, nature's way of reminding us that we're not that clever or important as a species.

  3. Oh! Let me just add though, that the picture is weirdly beautiful.

  4. Claudie, you are a superhero.

    Viruses creepy me out too. Ebola is my number one arch-nemesis. The fact that the world didn't break out into a worldwide Ebola epidemic 30-something years ago is a miracle. However! What if the virus was lying in wait, knowing that we procreate like rabbits? "In thirty years, the human population will have doubled, which means more food for us! MWAHAHAHA!!!!"
    That is, until the exhaust the human population in roughly six months time. Then they will mutate and go after puppies and kittens.
    Yes, I imagine Ebola to be an evil genius.

  5. cookie: There's no need to fear about Ebola. The truth is that the virus is very misadapted to human cells, because it kills the host (us) before it has time to replicate so much. Not to mention, someone with Ebola is, hum, quite easy to identify. ^^ I'm more afraid of sneaky viruses, like HIV.

    Sommer: That sounds like an awesome research project. Very clever. I hope they get something out of it.

    On the other hand, it'll take a lot of informing the public before anyone allows them to GIVE them HIV, even a modified harmless one.

    Jen: They made a lot of development in science photography and modelling. There's a video I intend to post at some point that you'll love.

    And yeah, virus are also a reminder of how sometimes, it's the tiniest things that are dangerous.

  6. This is probably for yesterday's post, but you mentioned it as your fear here. I work with scientists who are trying to determine how different medications are processed/metabolized by different humans based on their genome. There have been many creepy conversations about using "big, bad genetics" to customize children (always a crowd pleaser topic) or to somehow steal your identity.

    I feel that science itself isn't as scary as some of the freakish scientists with agendas...

  7. Claudie, that is what they want you to think.

    I think what scares me the most about Ebola, is the potential behind it, not the actual virus itself--you know, other than turning your body into a virus infested slush so you can bleed out all over everyone within a five foot radius and therefore spread the disease. But yea, it usually does kill you before you can spread it too far. Thankfully.

    HIV doesn't scare me as much. It's still freaky.

  8. TL: You have quite a point here. Often it's not the science itself that is creepy, but the ways ill-meaning scientists culd use it. And everyone loves customizing children, right? RIGHT?

    cookie: Modify Ebola to act more slowly and you definitely have something dangerous. Freaky dangerous.

    HIV's scary part is its action mode. I mean, this thing hides in your body, lurking about and slowly destroying your immunity system. HIV is the traitor opening the castle's gates to the enemy when your back is turned.

  9. I think the creepiest viruses are the ones that literally look like little robotic spiders.

  10. Oh and also the fact that viruses technically aren't living things. They're just proteins! Definitely gives it a whole other level of creepiness...