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For your information: Viruses

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With the public's attention on COVID-19, some people might be curious to understand what a virus is and how it makes people sick. 

With the media almost solely focusing on the ongoing effects of COVID-19 spreading across the country, some people’s curiosity is fueled by fear, confusion or interest to understand exactly what COVID-19 is and how people deal with viruses. Luckily, your friendly science major is here to help go over some science questions to better get a handle on what is happening at a molecular level.

What is a virus?

A virus is essentially a capsule of DNA or RNA. Most people are familiar with DNA, the unique code for each individual living thing. RNA is very similar, with a few chemical differences, but it can also encode proteins and other cellular functions.

How do viruses replicate?

Unlike humans and bacteria, viruses don’t have cells, which are considered the basic unit required to be called a life form. Viruses are just at the edge of being called living because, while they have genes they pass down to their offspring and can mutate, they don’t have any of the equipment needed to replicate on their own.

Without the ability to multiply on their own, viruses will attach to a host cell, depending on the kind of virus and depending on what kind of cell and where on the cell it attaches too. From there, it will penetrate through the cell membrane, a thin protective fatty layer, before inserting its own genetic code into the cell’s machinery. The virus will make as many copies as it can until the cell literally bursts or lysis from the amount of virus inside the cell. As all the baby viruses come out they’ll go on to spread to other cells and repeat the process.

Why do we get sick from viruses?

Lysis results in cell death, and this is what causes us to get sick. The symptoms being displayed depends on the function of the cells being infected.

How does our body fight against viruses?

Even though viruses multiply extremely quickly in a short span of time, our bodies do have a good defense system to deal with them. Our body will raise our temperature to make it harder for the virus to do its internal processes. Of course, that also affects our own cells past a certain temperature. The big guns are the antibodies the body produces. This Y-shaped protein has two sites on its ends that bind to certain places on the virus and render it useless and also could release chemicals that destroy the virus. For each virus a person has been exposed to, the body has a specific antibody with a specialized site for that particular virus.

There is still a lot researchers are learning about viruses. With viruses that affect every kind of life form on earth, there are novel varieties like the one responsible for COVID-19 that are still being discovered and characterized.