Size Matters

Small things are difficult to see. The smallest things are difficult even to imagine. We are missing life at its smallest, overlooking living things that came before us and make us possible. We need to look inside the box more appreciatively.

OPEN this terrific graphic from the Genetic Science Learning Center at the University of Utah for a trip into the world of small. Click on the slider, slide it to the right, and zoom in past a sesame seed, past a skin cell, then a blood cell,  a bacterium, all the way down to viruses, molecules, and finally a carbon atom. It’s a wild trip. 

The zoom takes you down into the roots of life. It also takes you back in time. Back billions of years, from complex single-celled creatures and building blocks towards the not–alive viruses that may predate full reproductive life, back to one of the atoms that makes it all possible. Small came first. And life stayed small for a long time.

Then it got bigger. Humans are not only complex but relatively large. Elephants, whales, and trees grow larger than we do, but hundreds of species of everything from dogs to Humans are not only complex but also relatively large. Elephants, whales and trees grow larger than we do, but hundreds of species, from cows to ordinary bushes, come in our size range. Up to a point and with exceptions, a bigger body survives longer.

Perhaps this trend underlies our perceptions of authority and even spirituality. The entities that we worship in any sense of that word are bigger than we are—not only gods but powerful people who seem ‘larger than life,’ or the universe itself, or Nature. They are the somethings–larger than we are often seeking. We grant even big trees and elephants a majesty that we don’t attribute to bushes and mice. Large things, if we think they are friendly, offer inclusion and protection.


But we don’t usually feel that warm about tiny things. That’s partly because we simply can’t see them. I wonder what it would be like if we were able to see individual bacteria, skin cells, the cells in a piece of fruit in the same way that we can easily see even individual blades of grass. Imagine seeing the single–celled creatures floating in the air and in the water and on our skin, on other skins, in our food, in our rooms. Would we feel enveloped by life in the way that we do when walking in a forest or watching flocks of birds? If we could see all those individual cells pumping, crawling, swimming, dividing, could we find our something–larger in those somethings–smaller?

Are There Any GOOD Viruses?

Are there any viruses that are good for us? Any that will rejuvenate a liver, improve the digestion, smooth the skin – in addition to those that bring on polio, smallpox, Lyme, HIV, and the flu? Some bacteria, by comparison, digest our food even while others cause botulism and strep throat. Viruses come in plenty of varieties. Aren’t any of them welcome or even necessary to our health?

On the face of it, no. The basic action of viruses is destructive. These strips of DNA or RNA, enclosed in protein, don’t maintain a metabolism, can’t produce new protein, and can’t reproduce on their own. They are not alive – not as the term is usually defined. Viruses do only one thing that living cells do: they evolve. Which is why we need a new flu vaccine each year. But although a virus can’t reproduce by itself, it knows enough to insert itself into a living cell’s DNA, forcing it to make a new virus.  The vocabulary describing this process is military and agressive: the virus ‘takes over,’ ‘high-jacks,’ ‘subjugates’ or ‘commandeers’ the cell. The original cell continues to make viruses, or it withers, or it bursts. The living cell dwindles. The half-alive virus flourishes.

phages (wikipedia)

Photo of virus invading a bacterium  (Wikipedia)

For comparison, bacteria are living, single-cell organisms. They seek food and process it. They divide into two bacteria on their own. Because they are alive, bacteria can be killed – by antibiotics, by the body’s immune system, or even by particular viruses (bacteriophages, “bacteria-eaters”) that attack bacteria.

But viruses can not be killed in the same sense. They have no metabolism to disrupt. Instead, anti-viral medications disrupt and slow down their ability to usurp a healthy cell’s genome. But that takes time. If a weakened virus (such as a piece of one) is injected as a vaccine early enough, the immune system gets a head-start on preparing enough antibodies to stop the virus in its tracks. Maybe. If a virus morphs and the vaccine doesn’t work, pandemic looms.

So viruses are “good” for us only if they ruin cells that are ones we want to get rid of. If a cell is a cancer cell in the lung, breast, pancreas, or prostate, then bravo for the virus that bursts it. And bravo for the virus that destroys the bacteria that causes tuberculosis or cholera.

There is another way in which viruses can do good deeds. They are specialists at transporting their genetic material into a cell’s genome. So biologists use them to insert corrected DNA into a patient’s genes. Such gene therapy can cure inherited diseases like cystic fibrosis. So, bravo again!–not for the virus, but for the researchers that put this wicked tool to good use.

Viral replication seems to me a perversion of life’s ability to reproduce. Reproduction, perhaps the essential process of living things, is co-opted by a genetic strip to reproduce its lifelessness at the expense of a healthy cell.

Such depravity is the stuff of horror movies. In Rosemary’s Baby and the Alien films, demons and aliens find human bodies to breed in. Most of all, viruses make me think of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). A post-war trope of McCarthyist paranoia and mindless conformity, Invasion tells of townspeople becoming “not themselves” as pods placed near bedrooms ripen to replace humans with look-alike automatons that collaborate to distribute more pods. At film’s end, despite efforts to warn the nation, truck-loads of pods roll on to cities, leaving the audience with little confidence about an end to the outbreak.

MV5BNDA3ZDAzMWUtM2YyMS00MTY5LWIzZTktN2E5MWIzZjJjMGMxXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzc5NjM0NA@@._V1_