Why viruses fascinate me.

Lab Note #1
Jan 02, 2015

After reading the "meet the researcher" part of my page you might be wondering why I switched from studying reef fish and insects, very cool, beautiful organisms that you can actually see, to viruses, invisible to the eye, simple little replicating machines. Well I will give you that they are invisible to the naked eye, so small in fact that we need electron microscopes just to see the extremely small viruses that I study, but simple, NO WAY! 

Viruses are top notch at overcoming nearly any obstacle that they are faced with. This is due to their incredibly high mutational rate compared to humans or any other multi-cellular organisms. In fact, the single-stranded DNA viruses I study have an average mutation rate of 10^-5 - 10^-6, which means that 1 out of every 10,000 - 100,000 nucleotides is likely to be mutated! That is extremely high compared to Eukaryotes, which have a mutational rate or 1 out of every 10,000,000 - 10,000,000,000. Please bear with me as I walk through a little bit more math in my explanation of how cool viruses are. The viruses I study range in genome size from 2,000 - 5,000 nucleotides. So if we focus on the large end of 5,000 nucleotides long and the mutational rate is 1 out of every 10,000 - 100,000 nucleotides, then this means that every time they reproduce roughly 1 out of every 2 - 20 genomes produced will contain a mutation! 

Now you might be thinking that this high mutational rate viruses experience must be bad, right? Well yes and no. It is true that most mutations are bad and wind up decreasing the survivability and reproductive success of the genome carrying them, BUT, it is the small percentage of beneficial mutations that arise which allow viruses to completely rule this planet, and make me think they are the coolest "organisms" to study. Their tendency to produce mutant offspring allows them to do everything from evade our immune system and the antiviral medications we throw at them, to switching which host species they infect, such as "swine flu" switching from infecting pigs to infecting us humans. They are truly the world's best problem solvers. One difficulty this introduces for us is that their potential is nearly endless, which means the diversity they are capable of is mind-boggling. This large degree of diversity, and the possibility for the viral populations to be ever changing, is exactly what excites me! The viruses I have found so far are less than 80% similar to any virus we have seen before, and it is likely that I will continue to find viruses that are extremely divergent from the viruses we know. So for me the question is not why do I find viruses fascinating, but how could I not find viruses fascinating, with their innate ability to adapt to nearly any scenario and a level of diversity that us poor, constrained multi-cellular organisms could never hope to achieve?

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