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A Gazillion Tiny Avatars

As I mentioned last week, next year is to be the International Year of Biodiversity. So I thought I’d kick off the celebrations by looking at some of the funkiest beings on the planet: viruses.

Viruses have a bad reputation: in humans, they cause illnesses as varied as colds, flu, cervical cancer, polio and ebola. But to focus exclusively on the harm they cause is to do them an injustice, for viruses are also fascinating, mysterious and powerful forces of nature.

First things first: what is a virus?

Viruses are different from all other life forms. Whereas the rest of us — whether we’re talking humans, mushrooms, petunias or bacteria — are made of one or more cells, viruses are not. They haven’t got a cell, with all that machinery for detecting, and interacting with, the outside world. Instead, viruses are just sets of genes packed inside a capsule, or “capsid,” that is usually made out of protein molecules. (Depending on the virus, the capsid will take one of a number of forms. Some look like 20-sided dice. Others resemble moon landers — tiny containers on a set of legs.)
 
 

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