Virus. The word is usually met with fear and understandably so. These microscopic collections of biological chemicals have been responsible for countless cases of death and sickness. The very mention of a deadly viral pandemic can send entire neighborhoods, cities, or even geographic zones into a state of sheer, frenzied panic.
Viruses are invisible to the naked eye, and they exist almost everywhere on Earth. They can infect fungi, plants, animals, and yes, humans. Some people have even speculated that viruses could pose a grave threat to the future of humanity.
However, not all viruses are bad. In fact, as we learn more about them, we are discovering that some viruses are actually quite beneficial. They have helped us in ways that we didn’t realize at first, and others pose interesting but positive possibilities for our future.
Bacteriophages are viruses that infect bacteria. They are found almost everywhere—in soil, in water, and even in the human body (mostly in our gut and mucus).
They were originally discovered in 1915 by Frederick Twort and have since become relatively famous in the field of microbiology as a therapeutic tool to help control bacterial infections.
While “phage therapy” is still under development, it is possible that it could be used in a number of different applications. It has already been used to treat some different types of ailments, and it shows great promise for the treatment of conditions ranging from cystic fibrosis to cancer. Some say that in our age of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, phage therapy also offers a viable replacement for traditional antibiotics.
Tropical panic grass has always had the ability to grow in soil with an unusually high temperature. Researchers have since discovered that the cause behind this unique ability seems to be a virus. A fungal endophyte grows on this grass, and a virus that infects this fungus seems to be the source of this heat-resistant power.
Even more interesting, scientists attached the virus to other plants, giving them the same ability. The researchers even managed to grow tomatoes in soil as hot as 60 degrees Celsius (140 °F) without killing them.
But what happens if you remove the virus? They discovered that plants “cured” of the virus lost the ability to grow in extreme heat. Maybe that’s how the Human Torch does it.
Vesticular stomatitis virus (VSV) is a contagious disease that is best known for afflicting horses, although it can also infect other animals and even humans. It is not usually fatal or even particularly dangerous for humans, though it can cause flu-like symptoms. Some people even develop blisters in their mouths as a result of the virus, which is usually transmitted to humans through horses.
But this virus has also made headlines for its use in oncolytic virus (OV) therapy. Yes, VSV has shown promise as an emerging anticancer treatment. Apparently, one of the reasons that this virus is such a good fit for OV therapy is because it is “not pathogenic to humans.”
Who would have thought that a virus that caused mouth ulcers in horses would be the source of a groundbreaking new cancer treatment?
Adenoviruses are a group of fairly common viruses. They are extremely contagious, usually cause only mild symptoms, and generally go away within a few days.
Some of them are actually quite well known. Bronchitis, pneumonia, many stomach infections, colds, croup, and even meningitis can all be found within the adenovirus family.
But researchers have also learned that one particular strain of the virus, type 52 (HAdV-52), binds to a very specific type of carbohydrate found in cancer cells. This creates some interesting possibilities for virus-based cancer therapy.
There is obviously more studying to be done. But in the future, scientists might be able to arm viruses with genes to help fight cancer. They may also be able to use viruses to activate the body’s own immune system to fight the cancer itself.
Virologists have become especially interested in noroviruses. These particular micro life-forms are well known for their ability to cause epidemics of diarrhea on cruise ships. They are also infamous for their ability to ravage laboratory mice colonies with disease.
But as it turns out, some strains of the virus have proven useful—especially for their role in helping to “normalize” mice that have grown in sterile environments. These mice don’t make enough T cells, which hurts their gut bacteria and immune response.
To fix the problem, researchers have shown that giving bacteria to the mice can help to rebalance their immune cells, but adding a norovirus to the mix can actually solve the same problem. Researchers also found that some strains of the norovirus helped to lessen the effects of pathogens that usually cause weight loss, diarrhea, and other related symptoms in mice.
This makes for an exciting discovery as researchers unveil new ways to use viruses for good. Giving strains of the norovirus to humans to treat other diseases would be seen as highly controversial, but a lot of evidence says that it could actually help.
Ancient retroviruses may be the reason we don’t lay eggs.
Scientists have yet to unravel the entire part that ancient retroviruses have played in human development. But some of them, technically referred to as “endogenous retroviruses,” are believed to have helped in the evolution of the placenta in mammals.
To put it in super simple terms, some scientists believe that a primitive human ancestor contracted an endogenous retrovirus that caused mutations in the genetic code. This eventually led to mammals being capable of live birth.
The formation of the placenta was a huge step in the evolutionary process because it allowed mammals to give birth to live young. But when you take a really close look at the relationship between a mother and a fetus, it is not surprising that it shares many of the same characteristics that you would expect to see in the relationship between a host and a parasite.
The work is ongoing. But don’t be surprised if we discover someday that the reason human females give birth to live babies instead of laying eggs is thanks to an ancient virus that altered our DNA.
This one is fairly technical, but it is no less amazing.
The Gammaherpesvirinae is technically a subfamily of herpesviruses that includes a number of different viruses. There are actually many different types of herpes viruses, with the best-known examples probably being herpes simplex virus type 1 and herpes simplex virus type 2, which cause cold sores and genital herpes.
As it turns out, latent infection with one type of gammaherpesvirus (type MHV-68) has been shown to increase resistance to infection with Listeria monocytogenes—the bacteria best known for food poisoning.
Who would have thought that herpes would help to fight food poisoning?
This story actually begins with a dangerous virus called smallpox. Nobody is sure where it came from. But it is believed that even as early as the third century BC, it was afflicting the Egyptian empire. Records of it have been discovered in China from the fourth century, and it has basically shown up everywhere since.
It was a devastating disease that killed about 30 percent of infected people. Even those who survived were often left with terrible scars as a result of the ordeal.
But in 1796, an English doctor named Edward Jenner made a discovery. He noticed that milkmaids tended not to contract smallpox as often as everyone else. Soon, he realized that a similar virus called cowpox often spread from cows to the milkmaids and may have had something to do with it.
He tested his theory by inoculating a boy with material from a cowpox sore and then exposing him to smallpox. Although it may sound like a shocking experiment, it was actually successful. This led to the practice of vaccination that ended up eradicating the smallpox virus two centuries later.
HIV is probably one of the most terrifying and infamous viruses of the 21st century. Nevertheless, another virus, GBV-C, has been getting some attention from scientists for its effect on those who are HIV positive.
GBV-C is a member of the Flaviviridae family of viruses and can also be referred to as hepatitis G. The interesting aspect of this virus is its effect on the progression of HIV.
To put it simply, people who have both HIV and GBV-C tend to display a slower progression to AIDS and improved odds of survival—which is pretty amazing.
Who would have imagined that a virus as dangerous as HIV could possibly be slowed down by the existence of another virus?
Did you know that human consciousness may have originally been caused by a virus? Yes, it is possible, and here is why.
Researchers believe that a virus attached itself to the genome of one of our ancestors long ago—probably even before we walked on two legs. But they also believe that a tiny bit of the genetic coding contained within the virus still exists within our brains today and may be responsible for some serious “brain power,” including consciousness itself.
The Arc gene is essential for the learning process in humans. Weirdly enough, it communicates by sending genetic material from one neuron to another using a process that is commonly seen in viruses.
Further research must be done to determine exactly what this means. But right now, it looks as though it is very possible that we inherited our ability to learn and form conscious thoughts from the genetic material of some ancient brain virus!
Yes, the universe is definitely a weird and mysterious place.
Joshua Sigafus is just a writer who is trying to make the world a better place.