Viruses are some of the least known, least understood organic molecules of all by the general public. Even veteran scientists struggle to cope with their very different cycle of existence and manner of replication. In this article, we will examine exactly what a virus is, how it reproduces, whether it is alive or not, and how it fits into the origins debate.
A virus is any of a number of infectious organics which do not reproduce sexually or asexually. Instead, they infect a host cell and use it to produce millions of new viruses. Each virus is specific to a certain type or types of host. Some infect birds, others mammals. Very rarely do viruses have a large range of hosts to choose from. Viruses are not cells. Rather, they can be thought of as packets of genetic information with a dispensing port attached. Viruses exist to create more viruses. They are designed to do nothing else. They are composed of several important parts. The outer shell is composed mostly of proteins and is called a capsid. Capsids come in a couple different varieties, but their purpose remains the same, that being to hold the genetic material required to turn a host cell into a viral duplicator. Some viruses also have something called an envelope, which functions as a membrane for the viral material. Inside the capsid, the virus houses its genetic material. The viral genome is composed of DNA and RNA just like the animal and human genomes. Generally, they are quite small, composed of relatively few base pairs.
Viruses do not sexually or asexually reproduce. Instead, they hijack other organisms cells to reproduce for them. The easiest and most common way to illustrate this is with bacteria. A special kind of virus, known as a bacteriophage, infects a bacterium. Once it finds the right host bacterium, a bacteriophage will attach itself to the outer membrane of the bacterial cell. It will then inject its entire genome into the unfortunate bacterium. This new genetic material will invade the bacterial genome and reprogram it so that the bacterium becomes a factory for new viruses. As this process goes on, the cell becomes full of new viruses. Eventually, the cell will burst open, spewing forth its contents. The newly released viruses will then travel through whatever medium they are released into in search of new bacteria to infect. This process will then be repeated. The process works almost identically in humans and animals. Since the viral genome is replicated regularly, it frequently develops mutations. This makes it harder to vaccinate against anything but the most stable viral genomes. This is the reason the flu vaccine is so ineffective.
Scientists struggle with the question of whether viruses are alive or not. Under normal circumstances, for something to be scientifically alive, it must be able to metabolize nutrients, react to stimuli, grow, and reproduce itself. I wrote more extensively about this when I asked if plants were alive. That article is below. Viruses meet all but the last condition. Viruses are incapable of reproducing themselves. Instead, they rely on parasitizing a host cell which will then duplicate the virus. Biologically then, viruses are not alive. However, this places scientists in an awkward position. Viruses are not biologically alive, but they are clearly not biologically inert like we would expect something like magnesium to be. They interact with their environment and intake nutrients. There is no clear answer to what viruses are. My personal solution to the problem would be to consider them alive, with the caveat that they have a truly unique mode of reproduction, not all that different than many parasites which require specific hosts in order to survive and reproduce.
Evolutionists hotly debate the origins of viruses. There are several competing theories which attempt to explain their origin. Some of these theories speculate that viruses were the first self-replicating organisms, a bold claim considering viruses no longer can self-replicate, which would mean they devolved downwards. Other theories cite the proposed RNA world as the spawning ground of viruses shortly after the development of the first cell. I wrote more extensively about the impossibility of the RNA world hypothesis in another article which I have linked to below. These theories still do not explain how a virus could have evolved to match the first cells, and why it specifically evolved to take over a bacterium or other cell. How did a mindless process cause the virus to form in such a way that it could inject its entire genome into a cell and thus reproduce the next generation of viruses? The very idea is absurd, yet ruling out a Master Designer, leaves evolutionists with no other choice.
Creationists have a problem of their own with viruses though not nearly to the same scale as the evolutionists. The Bible does not state when viruses were created, nor what their original purpose was. One can assume that they were made on day six with the land animals, but this cannot be argued dogmatically, nor can the original purpose of a virus be categorically stated. One thing that can be guaranteed is that, in the beginning, viruses were very good, just like the rest of God’s Creation. Their exact purpose can only be guessed at. Perhaps they were meant as vectors to allow sharing of genes between bacterial populations. Scientists have also discovered some benefits to viruses. In mice, a virus helps the intestine to develop fully. Others are involved in a three-way symbiotic relationship which allows plants to thrive at the edge of geysers. There is much left to learn about viruses and, as more information comes to light, other viral benefits be discovered. Clearly, viruses were designed to function alongside humanity and the plant and animal kingdoms and provide some benefit to them. While man’s sin may have caused many viruses to depart from their original design, many still appear to provide benefits to their hosts or other creatures around them.