September 04, 2008

Viruses you're gonna hear more about

Every cell in your body, every membrane in those cells -- all of you really -- only functions by virtue of a fabulously complex series of chemical reaction pathways that closely resemble an ensemble of cryptographic systems. Locks and keys abound, each fitting into the other precisely. Over untold generations, securer pathways have been selected for, and insecure pathways selected against. Every now and again, though, particles of DNA and RNA that resemble the good keys are created, either by copying errors within cells or just random molecular interaction. Over time, the best (in the sense that they trick the cellular machinery into making copies of them) of these fragments evolve as all things do, becoming viruses. Some of these become deadly or debilitating pathogens. Most of them are harmless (in the sense that they don't cause apparent immediate detriment), however, and many (we think) just end up part of the genome.

The tobacco mosaic virus, a pathogen for the tobacco plant but harmless to humans, might provide a very handy way to do gene therapy. It still infects us like any normal virus, and attempts to replicate its payload using our ribosomes, but to no real effect, as the genetic material it carries isn't compatible with ours. As the article suggests, researchers have perfected a swap of the genetic payload of the virus for one of their choosing, and can produce huge numbers of the virus on demand. This means 1) we might have a perfect vehicle for some amazing gene therapy and 2) we might have a convenient starter kit for the first man-made plague. Man-made diseases are coming, it's only a matter of time. I fully anticipate that we'll be using artificial immune system augmentation (think Symantec AntiVirus for your body) on a very regular basis before too long.

On a more purely positive note, it turns out that a particular potato virus might protect against Alzheimer's disease in humans. Alzheimer's is one of the worst diseases in my opinion, robbing many of us of parents and grandparents long before they die, and not because of any choice they deliberately made, but simple bad luck. It doesn't run in my family, but a very similar dementia disorder does, related to a dominant mutation in the Y chromosome. This means that unless a treatment can be found for the condition (an excess of clotting factor, causing thousands of tiny strokes later in life but protecting against small scrapes early in life), my mind will collapse shortly after my 80th birthday. That's still a long way off, but it scares the hell out of me.

Posted by: leoncaruthers at 11:58 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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