Alan Stahler: A look at the virus |

Alan Stahler: A look at the virus


Our lives depend – all life depends – on jig-saw puzzles. When your empty stomach needs to tell your brain to “Fill ‘er up!”, your stomach squirts a tiny puzzle-piece into your blood; blood carries the puzzle-piece to your brain; fitting into another puzzle-piece in your brain, the puzzle-piece delivers the message, and the brain alerts the body: “We’re hungry!”

Unfortunately, our jig-saw puzzles can be co-opted … they can be used by others, to send messages that do us harm.

Viruses are so tiny, they require the extreme magnification of the electron microscope to be seen (at this magnification, an inch-wide marshmallow would measure four-and-a-half miles across). Under the scope, the virus displays a crown – a corona – made of spikes; thus the name for this family of viruses: coronavirus.

The spikes enable the virus to infect us, and cause COVID-19 (coronavirus disease that showed up in 2019). The spikes bear a jig-saw puzzle piece that fits all-too-well into puzzle pieces on our lungs. The near-perfect fit fools our lungs – fools our lungs into not just allowing the virus enter, but into actually hauling the virus inside.

Fortunately, in the half-billion years since we animals appeared on this planet … and in the billions of years of evolution before that – we have learned a thing or two about playing with jig-saw puzzles. We can defend ourselves.

Your assignment: Take two books off the shelf – two novels – and type them into your computer.

That’ll be somewhere around a million keystrokes. You’re allowed one mistake. (Yes, you can use spell-check, but remember that spell-check might not flag ”toe truck”).

We’ve actually been performing this one-mistake-in-a-million copying trick … not since the day we were born … but since the day we were conceived.

We begin in mom’s belly as just a single cell. That cell divides in two; those two divide again … and again … leading, nine months later, to a newborn babe with trillions of cells (a trillion is a million million).

With very few exceptions (thinking red blood cells here), each and every cell must carry an instruction manual – instructions for living, written in DNA.

The DNA “alphabet” consists of four letters. Writing-out the full human instruction manual takes three billion letters.

The copying system that puts a DNA copy of the instruction manual into each cell makes, on average, one mistake – one mutation – in a million … equivalent to you or me copying two whole novels into our computer, with one mistake (The DNA-copying system does include a spell-checker).

One mistake in a million is accurate enough that we recognize our neighbors as human … and it provides just enough slack for change … for evolution.

There is, though, one place – one system – in our bodies, where copying errors are encouraged … where spell-check is shut down … where “mutations R us.”

Besides the puzzle-pieces the virus carries to invade our bodies, the virus carries puzzle-pieces of its own. If we could recognize those foreign puzzle-pieces, we could attack them, and destroy the virus.

Viral puzzle-pieces come in an enormous variety of shapes. Which is why our immune system allows itself a free hand with mutations – creating all sorts of puzzle-pieces that the body might encounter in the future.

These defensive puzzle-pieces are antibodies. We make gazillions of different shapes … but only one, or a few, of each – nowhere near enough to attack the billions of viral particles infesting an infected body.

It is only after the virus shows up that our immune system shifts into gear to churn out the gazillions of appropriately-shaped puzzle-pieces it needs to attack the virus. This takes time: Days … a week … maybe a week and some days.

A vaccine does not attack the virus … a vaccine cannot cure an infection … a vaccine merely buys time … it presents the immune system with puzzle-pieces that it might encounter in the future … should the virus invade.

In an effort to avoid politicizing the names of diseases (calling the 1918 flu “Spanish flu” was a result of the politics of World War I), researchers have recently taken to naming disease bugs with letters of the Greek alphabet. The first letters of the Greek alphabet are alpha and beta (corresponding to our own “A” and “B”); The third letter is gamma (so the correspondence is lost); but correspondence returns with the fourth letter: alpha, beta, gamma, delta.

And so we have the delta variant of COVID-19. Competing with other variants of the virus, the delta variant has evolved, to be more infectious than previous ones.

The decision of whether or not to get the jab comes down to how we perceive the odds: The odds of contracting the virus … the odds of getting a serious case of the disease … and (what tipped the balance for many of us) the odds of passing the virus on to others, whose immune systems might not be as strong as our own.

It does come down to the immune system. Vaccinated or not, only a strong, healthy immune system can fight the virus. Vaccination merely gives the immune system a heads-up – a head-start in churning out antibodies. That head-start, though, can make a difference in the outcome of a disease.

The strength of one’s immune system depends on many things. Major factors that we can control are diet … exercise … sleep.


Local astronomers are again hosting star parties! Our first SkyWatch takes place Saturday, July 31, at the junction of SR49 and the Old Downieville Hwy, beginning at 9PM. It’s free, and all ages are welcome. Bring a sweater.

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

The virus that causes COVID-19 — crown and all.
Photo courtesy NIAID

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