Al Stahler: The body’s viral defense | TheUnion.com
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Al Stahler: The body’s viral defense

Al Stahler
Columnist

Before a fresh team of astronauts launched to the space station last week, they’d been quarantined. Astronauts are always quarantined before launch — pandemic or no.

Floating weightless in space has got to be fun … but it’s hard on the body: Muscles and bones grow weak; so does the immune system.

Humans have been living in space for decades, yet we still don’t know just why zero-g — zero-gravity — plays havoc with the immune system. Exploiting a known connection, astronauts boost their immunity (along with bones, muscles and mental health) by hitting the exercise machines, two-plus hours a day.

Oil and water don’t mix … so how can we wash that greasy mess off the dinner pots with tap water?

With dish detergent, of course — a version of soap.

Soap molecules are made of long strings of atoms, very different at each end. One end of the string “wants” to dissolve in water; the other end “wants” to mix with oil. Even as the oily end latches onto a dollop of grease, the water-loving end dissolves in the dishwater, and the whole mess, soap and grease and all, washes down the drain.

The dishes are done — it’s time to play. Mix a bit of soap and water, shake it up, and look at the bubbles (You can borrow a kid’s bubble wand to blow bigger bubbles.).

Our bodies are built of cells — gazillions of tiny cells. Each body cell has a “skin” that is a lot like the skin of a soap bubble — oily here, watery there. The oily part of the cell’s skin creates a greasy barrier — an oily wall — between the watery inside of the cell, and the watery world outside.

Once the coronavirus has hijacked a body cell — has coerced the cell to make some thousands of viral copies — the new viruses burst out of their host cell, on their way toward infecting yet more body cells (or yet more people, when they’re coughed out of the lungs). But before they leave the bursting cell behind, the young viruses wrap themselves in remnants of the host cell’s skin.

Watch where two bubbles touch, one against the other. Usually, the bubbles will pop. But, every now and then — in the blink of an eye — the two bubbles merge: their skins link up, creating, out of two bubbles, one.

When the skin of a virus touches the skin of a body cell, the two skins — like two soap bubbles — can merge. Once they merge, the game is over. The virus hijacks its host, coercing it to churn out more viruses … thousands of them.

But the merging of skins is not automatic — the merger must be triggered by a tool the virus carries under its skin.

The virus, though, is really stripped-down — it’s got only enough genes to hijack its host, not enough to do the work of, say, making more viruses (which it leaves to its host) … not enough, even, to trigger the merging of skins. It leaves that job, too, to the host cell it wants to enter.

The skin of the virus is so much like the skin of a soap bubble, we can get the virus off our hands with soapy water, and wash it down the drain.

Medical researchers wash their hands a lot, even as they search for points in the virus’ strategy where the bug could be stopped in its tracks. One such point might be when the human cell reaches for the viral tool, to trigger the merger of skins … if only we could tell the cell to keep its “hands” off the tool … and keep the virus out.

Meanwhile, what about face masks?

Back in the 1860s, in the midst of the Civil War, questions arose, such as: “We’re covering our ships’ wooden hulls with iron, to protect them from enemy cannon fire … but, with all that iron around, how do we stop our compasses from going screwy?”

Congress passed a bill – which Lincoln promptly signed – establishing the National Academy of Sciences, to answer such questions.

The Academy is still going strong. Generally, when a question is posed, the NAS forms a committee to study it, and write a report. Some reports are book-length, and take a year or more to complete.

Which is a long time to wait, if you’re dealing with a pandemic. Since the middle of last month, the NAS has been issuing “Rapid expert consultations.” The latest, issued last week, was entitled, “Rapid Expert Consultation on the Effectiveness of Fabric Masks for the COVID-19 Pandemic.”

The scientists found that not much research has been done on homemade masks, though there has been some research on the size of droplets that can get thru various fabrics, on the velocity of droplets leaving your mouth when you cough or sneeze (high velocity) or breathe (low velocity). They did find evidence that a fabric mask would likely protect the wearer, or the people around the wearer, from large droplets and that some masks catch some of the smaller droplets. Perhaps most important, they wrote, was that masks can affect behavior.

Question: Would the proliferation of masks remind people that we’ve got a serious situation here, and, therefore, to maintain social distancing and to keep washing hands? Or would it do the opposite, creating a false sense of security?

More research, the report concludes, is needed. But given that cloth masks stop at least some droplets, I’ve started wearing a mask.

Looking up and down

As its orbit brings it ever-closer to Earth, Venus has been growing brighter in the western sky, after sunset. Planet Venus will be at its brightest next week.

This is Native Plant Week 2020, and the California Native Plant Society reminds us: “California native plants are powerful symbols of resilience. Not only have they evolved to withstand natural threats, they support the resilience of the living world around them.”

Which, of course, includes us.

Al Stahler enjoys sharing science and nature with friends and neighbors on KVMR-FM, and can be reached at stahler@kvmr.org.


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