The Sky and the Pail

Remember Chicken Little? She ran around crying that the sky was falling. Well, it is -with viruses and stuff. Kind makes you want to wear a hat. I mean, I had no idea that it was happening; I wonder how anyone did. It’s one thing to scoop up some pond water and put it under the microscope like van Leeuwenhoek to see his animalcules, but another to figure out what was in a New York Times pail of air in the back yard, or wherever. But that is just what a group of scientists did in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Spain for some reason:

Scientists are made of different clay from you and I, of course, so perhaps they were used to looking at stuff in buckets -a head start sort of thing. But think about the enormous confidence they must have had to resist the calls for them to pick up the junk they had left lying around and come in for supper. Somebody must have tipped them off, eh? They didn’t have to leave a tooth under the pillow for a reward, or anything, just an empty can. Sometimes science is just plain spooky.

Apparently, ‘Scientists have surmised there is a stream of viruses circling the planet, above the planet’s weather systems but below the level of airline travel.’ And they didn’t know much about it… Should that be a surprise? ‘Generally it’s assumed these viruses originate on the planet and are swept upward, but some researchers theorize that viruses actually may originate in the atmosphere.’ Whoa…! At any rate, ‘Whatever the case, viruses are the most abundant entities on the planet by far. While Dr. Suttle’s team [he is a marine virologist at the University of British Columbia] found hundreds of millions of viruses in a square meter, they counted [only] tens of millions of bacteria in the same space. Mostly thought of as infectious agents, viruses are much more than that. It’s hard to overstate the central role that viruses play in the world: They’re essential to everything from our immune system to our gut microbiome, to the ecosystems on land and sea, to climate regulation and the evolution of all species. Viruses contain a vast diverse array of unknown genes — and spread them to other species.’

Viruses have always intrigued me. ‘[…]  they lack the ability to reproduce and so must take over the cell of a host — called an infection — and use its machinery to replicate. The virus injects its own DNA into the host; sometimes those new genes are useful to the host and become part of its genome.’

But, even more interesting, I think: ‘Researchers  recently identified an ancient virus that inserted its DNA into the genomes of four-limbed animals that were human ancestors. That snippet of genetic code, called ARC, is part of the nervous system of modern humans and plays a role in human consciousness — nerve communication, memory formation and higher-order thinking. Between 40 percent and 80 percent of the human genome may be linked to ancient viral invasions.’

And also, ‘Viruses help keep ecosystems in balance by changing the composition of microbial communities. As toxic algae blooms spread in the ocean, for example, they are brought to heel by a virus that attacks the algae and causes it to explode and die, ending the outbreak in as little as a day.’ Viruses are everywhere, although, ‘The beneficial effects of viruses are much less known, especially among plants. […] A grass found in the high-temperature soils of Yellowstone’s geothermal areas, for example, needs a fungus to grow in the extreme environment. In turn, the fungus needs a virus.’ We, of course, need pails. Sometimes.

But, just think about it, we are literally swimming through raw genetic material, wearing it on our skin like clothing, breathing it, washing in it: Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine... Well, it’s sort of, like that. Of course they might not have had pails in Macbeth’s time.

What amazes me, however, is the sea of viruses, the sea of genes, that somehow soaks into our own genome over time -non-copulatory genetic transference. We all could be voluntary parthenogeneticists if we wanted to wait around for a while, although somehow I don’t think it would be a popular choice. We’re always in too much of a rush.

But you have to wonder when they do it, eh? Is it at night when we are asleep, or just when we are taking out the garbage, or something? And are we all equally open to penetration? Presumably we’re being assaulted a lot, but what actually constitutes an infection? Symptoms? Antibodies? Or just remnants of genetic material somewhere where it’s not supposed to be -like fragments of facial tissue found clinging to a Tee shirt after the laundry spin cycle?

Surely, if only an infinitesimally minute fraction of the bazillions of viruses landing on us each day, were successful at getting into our machinery, there probably wouldn’t even be a word for Health, and Kleenex shares would out-perform Apple’s. There’d be so many genes competing for a spot, we’d have developed chromosomes the size of wieners by now. You can only use so many genes, you know. I mean, it’s sort of like a hamburger -the bun can only hold so much before it’s just a mess on the plate.

No, I’m sure there’s something else going on here that they’re not telling us. Maybe only one googolplex of them actually gets through customs, then avoids being profiled and arrested. And maybe the ones that don’t get deported are only allowed to get low-paying jobs -waiting on tables or busking in malls… In fact, perhaps we should be advocating for their rights. Crowd-sourcing for them and campaigning against our heretofore blatantly discriminatory attitudes. Maybe we should be welcoming them into our neighbourhoods… It’s not their fault that they’re not like us. We were all immigrants once upon a time and we should all remember that.

Well, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, I suppose.




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