MERS Virus Attacking a Monkey Cell

MERS Virus attacking a monkey cell
MERS Virus attacking a monkey cell

South Korea has closed schools and canceled some public events amid concerns that an outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome, known as MERS, could become a pandemic. But officials from the World Health Organization say they expect standard infection-control measures to contain the outbreak. So far, the virus has been known to spread between people mostly inside of hospitals and among family members in close contact with a sick person.

Science News

As of yesterday, 30 people were known to be infected in this latest outbreak of MERS virus, including one infected person who travelled to China. This is China’s first case of the disease. 1,369 people were under quarantine in South Korea. The entire outbreak originated from one infected man who flew to South Korea from the Middle East. The first known human cases of MERS virus were in Saudi Arabia in 2012. Scientists have just determined the infection is carried by camels, but they haven’t yet determined how it spread to humans. Possibly by drinking raw camel milk, which is common there.

This is an extremely serious condition, since it is spreading person-to-person and about 30 percent of infected patients die from it. Because it is so new to us, there is no vaccine and no cure yet, and we don’t even know how it spreads. And as I research this, I have learned that an infected health worker travelling from Saudi Arabia brought the disease to the United States just a few hours ago. It’s ebola all over again.

MERS Virus Picture

It was this picture that first caught my attention. When I saw it and realized it was a single, microscopic monkey cell, greatly enlarged, I was intrigued  by the tiny viruses attacking it. They’re glomming all over it!

The colors aren’t natural, of course. It’s been rendered in “false color” to make it possible for us to see what’s happening. The big blue mass is a single cell taken from an animal. The tiny yellow things are viruses. I had no idea there’d be so many of them. In fact, I had wondered how it was possible to find such an incredibly small thing as a virus in an animal’s body. This answers that question.

A virus is nothing but a bit of genetic material with a protein shell to protect it. Nobody knows where  viruses originated, although there are hypotheses. The problem is, there’s not much evidence to support any of them.

One hypothesis that seems reasonable to me is that, of all the many trillions of trillions of bits of inert DNA that flake off from living organisms and float around in our environment, one of them just happened to contain genes that made it infectious. Just by accident. It entered a living cell and joined temporarily with the host’s DNA, forcing the cell to produce copies of it. The copies, being also infectious, would find other cells and infect them. Some would be in different organisms.

As this continued, many of the copies would be imperfect and die. A few, though, would be able to infect better and faster. Or they were able to infect different kinds of creatures. Viruses mutate a lot and evolve fast. So from that one scrap fragment of DNA sprang all the viruses we know of today. Maybe it even happened more than once. It could’ve happened any number of times.

But that doesn’t seem to explain that many of our most destructive human viruses aren’t actually DNA. Flu viruses and some cold viruses are RNA. So are HIV, and several others. And they’re by no means limited to humans. So where did RNA viruses come from? We don’t know that either. Not yet.

Tools like the microscope that made this picture obviously help us understand viruses and other microbes better.

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