Despite the global scale of the Covid-19 pandemic, there are still many things we don’t understand about it. We don’t know exactly how it spreads, where it came from, or what will happen as it continues to mutate.
Most importantly, we don’t understand its precise biology or origins, though that may not be specific to this virus. Viruses are, in general, an extremely mysterious and peculiar form of life that we’ve been trying to study for a while, though to little success. These mysterious – and sometimes scary – facts about viruses prove that they may as well be the weirdest form of life found on Earth, and why it’ll be a while before we can solve all the mysteries surrounding Covid-19.
10. Viruses May Have Given Us Memory
Memory has always been one of the most enduring mysteries of neuroscience. The precise biological processes that let us store and retrieve a memory are still not properly understood. There should be no way for the proteins inside the brain to retain information for longer than a few moments, let alone an entire lifetime.
If a recent study is to be believed, an ancient viral infection may have reprogrammed the genetic structure of one of our ancestors to do just that. They found that the mysterious neural gene responsible for our memory – Arc – operates exactly like some viruses, including the HIV retrovirus. As viruses – unlike other parasitic microbes like bacteria – tend to reprogram their host’s DNA, this suggests that an ancient viral infection may have, even if inadvertently, given us the ability to form and retrieve memories.
9. The Virus We Know Nothing About
What makes viruses so mysterious – and deadly – is that we know worryingly little about how many types of them are out there. The novel coronavirus is only one of the many coronavirus strains found in the wild, just like the Spanish flu was a mutated form of the regular Influenza virus.
Then, there’s the problem of viruses that are so alien to science they may as well be entirely new species, further muddying their family tree. Take Yaravirus – named after a mythological Brazilian water queen – which was recently discovered in Brazil. While we know that it falls in the broad category of amoebal viruses, that’s really all we know about it. Its origins and genes are completely new to us, and may just require a whole new classification to accommodate it.
8. Viruses Aren’t Technically Alive
Most people imagine viruses in the same category as other microbes like bacteria or fungi. Read up on them a bit, though, and you’ll realize that viruses are perhaps as different from their other microscopic counterparts as they are from us. In fact, they may not even be living creatures.
Viruses are really just bundles of biological material that requires living cells to operate. While they can effectively mutate, spread and alter the behavior of their hosts once they do have access to living cells, on their own, viruses can’t technically be classified as ‘life’.
7. Their Evolutionary Origins Are A Mystery
Viruses are unlike most creatures we know of, occupying a distinct place even among the broader family of microbes. Apart from being tiny, they share almost no similarities with other microbes. They don’t have living cells required for life, and can only spread by infecting other hosts and altering their genetic code. They mutate and evolve in a weird manner, too, making us question if they even belong on this planet.
Scientists agree, as we’ve never been able to decisively trace their evolutionary origins, either. For all we know, viruses could be an ancient branch of life we’ve not fully mapped out yet, a reactionary type of parasite that first evolved alongside complex creatures, or even an alien weapon sent to gradually wipe out humanity through plagues and pandemics.
6. Everything About Ebola
The novel coronavirus may seem to be the most mysterious virus we’ve ever encountered, though if we compare it to other members of its family, we actually know a lot about it. We know that it usually infects a variety of animals and has the ability to jump across species to mutate. We’ve even faced other versions of it in the past (like the MERS and SARS outbreaks), putting it under the category of – at the least – ‘familiar’ viruses.
If we talk about truly mysterious viruses we know next to nothing about, Ebola would probably be on top of the list. Apart from mutating patterns we just don’t understand, there’s the big question of where it lives when it’s not infecting a human host. While it’s suspected that it may be fruit bats – as they do contain some genetic material similar to Ebola – no Ebola traces have ever been isolated from any fruit bat species. Moreover, Ebola doesn’t affect any other animal as much as us, and we don’t know why. Most animals we’ve tested it on – like rats and bats – are able to fight it off with ease.
5. A Virus May Be Killing All The Starfish
Starfish enthusiasts and biologists stumbled upon a particularly worrying problem sometime in 2013. Nearly all the starfish in the waters around North America had suddenly started to develop huge lesions, before mysteriously dissolving into goo within just a few weeks.
While no one could initially explain it, some recent research suggests that a viral disease may be responsible for it. Thankfully, starfish populations are already recovering from the disaster, as the recent generations seemed to have successfully developed immunity against the virus.
4. Viruses That Can Invent New Genes
Giant viruses – as the name suggests – are abnormally large viruses we’ve not fully understood yet. For one, they are capable of holding a much larger amount of biological information than regular viruses, even if they behave exactly like them. More bafflingly, though, all giant viruses contain genetic code that’s not present in any of their evolutionary ancestors, or any other organism for that matter. Also known as ‘orphan genes’, they seem to have no evolutionary reason to be there.
According to a study done by French researchers, those genes may not be ‘orphan’ at all, but generated by the giant viruses themselves. They found that giant viruses like pandoraviruses are capable of making new, random genes on the fly, which explains why around 90% of their genetic code is unique to them. We still don’t know the evolutionary reasons behind developing this ability, though, as other viruses seem to do quite well without it.
3. How They Interact With Each Other
By now, it’s clear that we know very little about viruses, especially in terms of how they interact with and alter their hosts. Even more baffling, though, is how they talk to each other. From everything we know, viruses should not have any mechanism to consciously interact with each other and should only be able to mutate in response to the actions of their hosts, as they don’t have the required biological infrastructure to generate and carry complex signals.
As mounting research is finding out, though, viruses may have a much more active role in how an outbreak progresses than we previously thought. One researcher discovered – even if accidentally – that viruses regularly broadcast vital information to their brethren via proteins, like when to lie dormant, how many uninfected host cells are left, when to attack, and so forth.
2. Sleeping Viruses
We assume that the scariest viruses are the ones that spread too fast or kill their victims in horrifying ways, though they aren’t. Those factors actually work against a virus looking to infect as many hosts as it can, as it’s difficult to spread far and wide if you kill your host with huge, visible lesions within a matter of hours. The truly scary viruses – like the current Covid-19 coronavirus – are the ones that can lie dormant for years, possibly even centuries, all the while multiplying and infecting more hosts.
That’s not just horror-movie imagination, either, as we already know of a few viruses that can stay dormant inside us for long periods of time. Some of them, like herpes, can even get reactivated by spaceflight, as seen in over half of all the astronauts ever sent on space missions.
1. Viruses Made The Modern World
Despite being tiny and essentially non-living objects, viruses have had a huge impact on our civilization. Every viral pandemic – including the current one – has triggered profound and lasting changes in society.
Take the Black Death, which may as well be the biggest pandemic in human history. It wiped out an entire chunk of the global population within a matter of a few years, and was by all means one of the most devastating events we’ve ever witnessed. It was also the beginning of a new age of enlightenment, especially in Europe, and directly gave way to all of the technological, moral and social revolutions of the following centuries.
The smallpox epidemic – another one of history’s most devastating viral outbreaks – had an equally huge impact, though on the other side of the world. More than 90% of the native population across the Americas was eliminated by smallpox, measles and other viruses they had no immunity against by the end of the 16th century. This massive demographic change in the Americas didn’t just trigger the end of some of the biggest empires the world has ever seen. It also – indirectly or directly – set the stage for some of the most important events of the following centuries, such as the Spanish colonization of the Americas, Napoleonic Wars, and the formation of the USA.