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Al Stahler: Practice makes perfect

Model of a coronavirus spike — not from the COVID-19 virus, but from a coronavirus that causes the common cold.
Photo courtesy K. Zhang et al., Quarterly Reviews of Biophysics Discovery, 2020

Practice makes perfect … whether that’s good or bad depends on which team you’re rooting for.

The virus that causes COVID-19 is new to us … and we … are new … to it. Which means the virus is still exploring how it can best take advantage of us – it’s still practicing.

Things break down. From the moment we’re born, we’re taking our bodies apart and putting them back together – thousands upon thousands of different glue jobs and un-glue jobs … this goes on, as long as we’re alive … it’s what keeps us alive.



I know I’m not the only one who’s challenged to remember more than one thing at a time … let alone remembering thousands of different ways to un-glue, then glue myself back together. It would be hopeless, if I couldn’t write things down.

When the sun born, and the planets assembled around it, four-and-a-half billion years ago, Earth was a dead planet. Then – after roughly half-a-billion years … life evolved.



Early life had to invent things the planet had never seen before. Early on, life invented eating. Shortly after that, life invented pooping and peeing. Life needed an instruction manual to remember the thousands of ways it needed to glue and un-glue itself, so – four billion years ago – life invented reading and writing (‘rithmetic would come later … much later).

Today, we continue to read and write as we have for billions of years. Our alphabet – our ABCs … is composed of clumps of atoms, each clump a different shape. Just as letters are strung together to make words and sentences, clumps of atoms were – and still are – strung together in long strings of DNA.

Each “sentence” – each instruction in the manual – is a gene.

Problem: This form of reading and writing can be hacked. Plants, for instance, discourage animals from eating them by making chemicals that carry bogus messages, messing with our hearts, our brains.

Plants are not the only things that can hack into our bodies.

Everything alive has a body, and every body must have an instruction manual, to keep things in order – every body must have genes.

Every body must have genes, but there’s no rule that all genes must have bodies. Genes without bodies could drift – through the air, through the water – find a body to hack … hack into the body’s instruction manual … hijack the body … coerce the body into making copies of the drifting genes … and then send the copies out into the world, to hack yet more bodies.

Such drifting genes – genes-without-bodies – are viruses.

Look into the business end of a hungry shark, and you see a mouth … and teeth … shaped by millions of years of evolution.

Look into the business end of the COVID-19 virus, and you see a spike – dozens of spikes – jutting out from its surface. At the end of each spike sits a piece from a jig-saw puzzle – a three-dimensional jig-saw puzzle. The shape of the puzzle-piece is just right to plug into another piece of jig-saw puzzle … a piece of jig-saw puzzle sitting on our lungs. Like the teeth of the shark, the spike has been sculpted, by millions of years of evolution, to make the puzzle pieces fit … if not perfectly … pretty darn well.

(Quick diversion: Under the microscope, the spikes form a crown – a corona. In “COVID-19,” “co” comes from “corona;” “vi,” from “virus;” “d” stands for “disease;” and “19” derives from the year the virus was first seen: 2019.).

Question: Could the puzzle-piece on the spike be made to fit better to the puzzle-piece on our lungs … and give the virus a better grip?

Around the world, millions of human bodies have been hacked – hijacked into making and spewing copies of the COVID-19 virus. The vast majority of the copies look just like the original virus. But, every now and then, a virus comes out that’s just a little bit different. Such copying errors are mutations. Every mutation is an experiment.

Suppose your car is running well … and you decide to make a few random changes … crank down on a bolt here … loosen a bolt there … if the car was running well to begin with, chances are these random changes will not make your car run any better.

But maybe … maybe one time in a bazillion, by luck of the draw … the combined effect of all those random changes will, indeed, make the car run better.

That’s what the virus is counting on – that one in a bazillion chance that a combination of mutations will make the virus new and improved … perhaps by making the jig-saw puzzle pieces fit together better.

On Sept. 20, a patient was tested, and (later) found to be hosting a variant of the COVID-19 virus … a variant that had mutated like mad (Researchers hypothesize –make an educated guess – that a long, drawn-out infection, in a patient whose immune system was shot, might have given the bug time to mutate, again and again). Roughly half those mutations affected the shape and “stickiness” of the spike.

Viruses have no interest in making us sick. Truth-be-told, viruses would prefer we live – happy and healthy – forever … which would give us plenty of time and opportunity to make and spread the virus. The new viral variant does not … so far … seem to make COVID-19 more severe. But it does seem to make the puzzle-pieces fit better, making it easier for the bug to latch onto our lungs … it makes the disease easier to catch. Should the new variant spread faster than the old one … should it out-compete the old one … the new, easy-to-catch variant could become the new normal.

Vaccines target parts of the spike. It remains to be seen how the shapes of the old and new spike compare, to see how effective the new vaccines will be against the new variant.

 

In the sky

Earth does not trace out a perfect circle as it orbits the sun. We’re closer to the sun in some parts of our orbit, farther from the sun in others – 93 million miles is only our average distance from the sun … we’re usually closer or farther away.

It’s in winter that we’re closest to the sun, summer when we’re farthest (winters are a bit warmer, summers a bit cooler than they would be if this were reversed … as it will be, thousands of years in the future). We’ll be closest to the sun – ninety-one-and-a-half million miles – next Saturday morning, just before 6 a.m.

The winter solstice, Dec. 21, marked the shortest day of the year (sunrise to sunset). Since then, the sun has continued rising later and later … but sunset has also been getting later, allowing days to grow longer. This Monday will see the latest sunrise of the year – after that, the sun will rise earlier and earlier.

Al Stahler enjoys sharing science and nature with friends and neighbors in The Union and on KVMR-FM. He teaches classes for both kids and grown-ups, and can be reached at a.a.stahler11@gmail.com.


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