Life is never split away to nothingness. Even as prey, we are consumed by others. An ecological death is the breath of others. Sex is a consuming, an appetite. The cell itself is the most exquisite sex, a moment of evolutionary consumption. A very long time ago, one bacteria consumed another and the other survived too. * Both replicated in the union. This is the cell in perfect symbiosis.
Lynn Margulis, the great biologist and theorist, not only found proof of the process but fathomed a true power in it. From these two fused micro-organisms, and on through time, the reality of all life processes is in this direction ~ together, even after death.
Here, in the middle of a brutal pandemic, where Covid19 still evades extinction, I’m also going to tell you that viruses count, and in similar ways.
Viruses are not supposed to be alive, yet their enormous genetic volume swarms through our nagorasphere as if they are one the most intrinsic families of life. They are abundant everywhere there is life. They are even found in the giant sub-seafloor microbiome surviving for thousands of years. They are genetic parasites, though do not always destroy their biological host. They break into living cells to replicate their genetic patterns, and burst out in a process called lysis, which may end the life of the living cell, but not always. They can transfer genes horizontally from species to species, triggering speciation and leaving their ‘marks’ in surviving DNA. 8% of our own genome is laced with the remnants of viral genomes. They shape life by stimulating immune responses, and even by causing death.
In these many epochs of the living Earth, the flow of metabolism, and togetherness, and consuming, and sex, have remained unbroken for billions of years. Even after global cataclysms, life prevails. It seems unstoppable. Viruses are all part of the flow, like the dark matter of the universe. They are critical ecological agents and possibly have been managing populations of bacteria since way back before the endosymbiosis of the cell.
I have explained before that it’s probable that Covid19 had been bubbling away in mutualistic symbioses among bat, other mammalian, and even human populations of the forest valleys of Wuhan for some time. That our technologies like air travel have pushed it around the world has proven it to be devastating to novel populations. New viruses naturally take generations for our immune systems to de-code. Highly lethal pathogens are, of course, a dead-end for the viruses themselves, killing their hosts before infecting others, or mutating to infect others, in different ways. Covid19 lies somewhere between a mild immune-stimulating event, able to infect many often before detection and any show of symptoms, and a deadly Category A event, for humans at least. Many other forms of viruses are harmless, or even beneficial.
Bacteria rule the world, and viruses rule bacteria. In humans, we are realising our virome can manage the populations of our gut biome in positive and negative ways. Anti-bacterial and anti-viral medications save lives, but we don’t know the full extent of the effects upon those critical symbiotic relationships. They leave their trace, like messages through genetic time.
Most startling of all, and completely mind-blowing to me, the oceanic virome could be so powerful as to be critical to governing our climate. Bacteria and cyanobacteria are the ocean’s recyclers of nutrients and alter chemicals and gases we eat and breathe. A viral infection is the breath of others. As viruses control not only the numbers and densities of bacteria, they also change behaviours. Who knows how far up the trophic levels these effects travel. Despite our curiosity, we still know so little about those enormous systemic effects, including climate.
Could we ever learn to love viruses? Maybe not. But they are revealing themselves to be as ancient as life; genetic sculptors we symlings could never do without. Just like the origin of the cell itself, bacteria and viruses come together, swap DNA, and leave tiny comet tails of potential throughout all life. I’m sure we will continue to learn more about them, despite deadly pandemics, and even to respect the enormity of their littleness.