Viruses finally reveal their complex social life

Viruses finally reveal their complex social life

Carl Zimmer writes:

Ever since viruses came to light in the late 1800s, scientists have set them apart from the rest of life. Viruses were far smaller than cells, and inside their protein shells they carried little more than genes. They could not grow, copy their own genes or do much of anything. Researchers assumed that each virus was a solitary particle drifting alone through the world, able to replicate only if it happened to bump into the right cell that could take it in.

This simplicity was what attracted many scientists to viruses in the first place, said Marco Vignuzzi, a virologist at the Singapore Agency for Science, Research and Technology Infectious Diseases Labs. “We were trying to be reductionist.”

That reductionism paid off. Studies on viruses were crucial to the birth of modern biology. Lacking the complexity of cells, they revealed fundamental rules about how genes work. But viral reductionism came at a cost, Vignuzzi said: By assuming viruses are simple, you blind yourself to the possibility that they might be complicated in ways you don’t know about yet.

For example, if you think of viruses as isolated packages of genes, it would be absurd to imagine them having a social life. But Vignuzzi and a new school of like-minded virologists don’t think it’s absurd at all. In recent decades, they have discovered some strange features of viruses that don’t make sense if viruses are lonely particles. They instead are uncovering a marvelously complex social world of viruses. These sociovirologists, as the researchers sometimes call themselves, believe that viruses make sense only as members of a community. [Continue reading…]

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