The Virus

In 1959, German scientist Wolfhard Weidel wrote a book called (get ready for an ingenious title) Virus, in which he avowed that a virus is, “midway between brute matter and living organism.”  The book’s cover proclaims, “Nothing brings us so close to the riddle of life—and to its solution—as viruses.”  Scientifically speaking that may be true, but I prefer to think of life not as a riddle to be solved, but as a mystery to be lived.  On a less philosophical note, each of us has had to endure more than one up-close and personal confrontation with a virus.

For the last hundred years or so, science has flip-flopped back and forth as to whether a virus is alive.  Although viruses exhibit heredity via DNA or RNA, and meet five of the other six criteria of life, they have no cells.  Instead, viruses parasitize host cells, such as yours and mine, for raw materials and energy so that they can carry on with their miserable little lives, and reproduce.  The fact that viruses are able to adapt to their environment makes them all the more dangerous and all the less lovable, plus viruses are quite amenable to genetic engineering, uncaring of its purpose, and they don’t play political favorites.