September 27, 2010

Viruses: they're kind of rude

Viruses are sort of diabolical--"sort of" because, while they are experts in causing shenanigans, they aren't doing it on purpose. Plenty of organisms get by in some pretty gruesome ways, but that doesn't make them evil. Viruses are roughly equivalent in malice to orca whales,

who subside solely on cute and cuddlies like seals, penguins, and baby grey whales...

Yes, it definitely doesn't make them worthy of a children's movie (oh, right... Free Willy--nevermind), but they're not evil. It's the nature of life: for one organism to survive, thousands of others must die. But okay, enough philosophy and orca-bashing.

Here is what viruses actually do when they make you feel like poop:

Once inside your body, the virus browses for a cell it wants to infect. Viruses are very picky; they need to find a cell that will match its surface proteins. This is why viruses specialize in one type of cell or tissue.

Once the virus finds a match, it attaches itself to the outside of the cell and injects it with viral DNA, also known as the seed of evil.
Once inside your cell, the viral DNA does something downright unneighborly--it uses your cell's equipment to make a fresh batch of viruses.

It's like Goldilocks, except instead of eating porridge and test driving some mattresses, she cleans out the fridge and sets the living room aflame.

Now all these new viruses are being crammed into your cell, which is already brimming with cellular necessities like organelles, cytoplasm, and the will to live. So now we're fresh out of room. The viruses become so numerous and bulky, they cause the cell to burst.

The cell is now dead and hundreds of baby viruses scatter in all directions to repeat the process on new, unsuspecting cells. Not. Cool.

But don't worry! The aforementioned series events only happens if the virus is feeling productive. If a virus is feeling lazy, it (like me) procrastinates. It may enter your cell and just hang out for days, weeks, months, or even years. But whenever it wakes up from its stupor, it will make viruses and destroy your cell... so I suppose you should worry. Sorry.

September 21, 2010

Opossums Don't Care About You

This is an opossum.

Is he adorable? Yes.
Does he care about your problems? No.

But people in Brooklyn didn't know this.  The city released a gaggle* of opossums into city parks, hoping they would be nature's solution to the rat problem. The only problem was that no one explained this to the opossums (or not very well). Surrounded by an abundance of food that we call "trash," the opossums weren't so interested in eating rats. Now Brooklyn has rat and opossum issues.

*Okay, I don't really know what a group of opossums is called, but gaggle is fun to say.

Hm... What should they bring to the city to deal with the opossums? Answer: Nothing, because whatever it is will just make the problem worse.

What's the message here? There happen to be two of them:
1. We don't know what we're doing. (I have another post about introducing species this way.)
2. Nature doesn't care what we want. It just wants to eat garbage. No, that's just opossums.

Side story: On my trip to Australia, the only marsupial I saw was an opossum, which I could have seen in the U.S. just as easily.  Kangaroos? No. Wombats? Not a single one. I fail.

September 16, 2010

It's Probably Just a Phage

Oh, puns. They never get old... until they do.

Bacteria and viruses are not the same. I harp on this all the time, being the overzealous nerd that I am. And I just realized I never talked about an example that underscores their difference more than anything else--the fact that bacteria get viruses!

Perhaps this can be another reminder that bacteria aren't all bad. I mean, we can now commiserate with them about the annoyances of viruses. When I was tethered to the couch last week with my virus-induced borderline coma, that was all that got me through it (that and alka seltzer cold). Nothing brings people/species together more than a common enemy. (I'm pretty sure our only hope for world peace is the existence of hostile aliens.)

A virus that infects bacteria is a called a phage, sometimes called a bacteriophage (to clear up any doubts as to what it's infecting). Behold, it looks like a spaceship:

If you think bacteria are small, you won't believe how small phages are. Here's a picture of one in the process of infecting a bacterium.
Thank you,

So if a bacterium were the size of a pregnant rabbit, a phage would be the size of a lizard's eyeball. Not clear enough? Let's say that bacterium:phage is approximately the same as watermelon:blueberry. Not into fruit comparisons? How's about basketball:marble? Giant Mrs. Fields cookie:dime? I don't know any more, and I'm starting to confuse myself.

The most important thing to know about bacteriophages is that they lend themselves well to being cake-ified, as my friend Mahira brilliantly demonstrates.

September 14, 2010

My Mysophobia Explained

I have mysophobia. There, I've said it. I hear that's the first step to recovery.

my·so·pho·bia definition

: abnormal fear of or distaste for uncleanliness or contamination
(Thank you,  You've been quite helpful.)

So allow me to explain. I started to worry about the cleanliness of my hands in 9th grade when two important events coincided: I started to wear contacts and I took high school biology.

I have had glasses since kindergarten, but I pretty much refused to wear them and would often lose them... on purpose.
Side story: A girl in my kindergarten class made fun of me for wearing glasses. I would come home crying, and my mom eventually sat me down and explained that there is nothing wrong with glasses, but that there is something wrong with someone who teases me for it. She told me to "handle it the way that mom would." The next time the girl made fun of me, it was in front of all the parents while we were being picked up in front of the school. In front of several mothers, including my own, I told her to "kiss my white ass." I guess I heard it in a movie, because my mom wouldn't have said that. But apparently I thought she might if the situation called for it.
I finally got contacts the summer before high school started, and I was in love with them.

All of a sudden, I was getting very friendly with my eyes.  Putting contacts in required poking, taking them out required pinching, and in between I was constantly touching and making adjustments.

At the same time in biology class, we learned about the immune system and agents of disease. I distinctly remember my biology teacher explaining how germs can enter our body.  He said, "By now, you've probably stopped sticking your finger up your nose, but people don't think twice about touching their eyes, and you don't have as many immune cells in your eyes, so it's arguably worse than putting your finger in your nose."

I like to imagine I was touching my eye while he was saying this, adding to the horrible realization that I was making my body vulnerable to intruders by almost constantly touching my eyes.

Let's just say, this resonated deeply with me. I decided to make sure my hands were clean before I did any contact-adjusting or other types of eye-poking activities.

It was at this time that I started to realize how dirty my hands might be from touching commonly used public surfaces.

Door handles became suspect.

Bathroom sinks? Gross.

I began to delegate what responsibilities I could.  I began to flush the toilet with my foot.
It was starting to get ridiculous. I felt like I was a ninja in training every time I used a public bathroom--with the hovering, leaving no trace, and using roundhouse kicks to open the doors.

I started to realize that I don't have an overall aversion to all things associated with dirt or germs. It's pretty public bathroom specific. I don't mind picking up my guinea pig, who spends all his time lying around in his own dung. Actual dirt is okay too, if I'm repotting a houseplant, for instance. And touching common areas that aren't near bathrooms are okay too, even though they might be worse.
For instance, I went bowling a few months ago and had a great, worry-free time even though bowling requires you to not only touch but stick your fingers inside a ball where god knows how many hygiene-challenged salt-of-the-earth types have stuck their poo-laced fingers.

This I had no problem with. But touching the door on the way out a public bathroom? That required a paper towel barrier.

One day, I sat myself down and decided I was going to stop this. I can't waste energy worrying about what possibly dirty surfaces I've touched today. And I'm not constantly touching my contacts throughout the day any more, so why am I so worried? From now on, I'm going to open doors with my bare hands.  I'm going to manhandle the sink when I turn it on instead of trying to use my wrist. I am going to stop carrying disinfecting wipes in my purse.

I have overcome! I win the war against myself! I can do anything!

(I still use my foot to flush public toilets.)

September 05, 2010

A Day in the Life of a Virus

Let me tell you about the day I've had.

It all started this morning when I was just enjoying the view atop the finger that I called home.

I'd been here for quite a while--as long as I can remember, anyway. It was warm and comfortable, and I felt safe here. Things couldn't get much better.

This finger was attached to some guy whose name escapes me.
I think it was Jeff. Or was it Paul? Whatever. He's not listening anyway.
This guy--what was his name?!--had a bad habit...

something horrible...

something really nasty...

something so deviant I can barely say it out loud.

He would often pick his nose.

This particular time, I happened to be on the pioneering finger.

I wasn't aware of what was happening until all of a sudden, it got very dark.

After some thrashing and spinning, I found myself inside a dark and creepy tunnel.

I had no idea which way to go--I was competely disoriented from the nose-picking experience. I finally decided that going anywhere was better than staying in this weirdo place, so I just started walking.

The cave was damp and gooey.  Everywhere there were puddles of green nastiness.

The cave was groaning, and a breeze whipped through the cave every few seconds, changing directions wildly... as if this place could be any more uninviting.

At the end of the tunnel, I reached a hill overlooking a bustling city.
The city was so big... so loud... so intimidating. I didn't know what I was going to do, and I felt like I was going to vomit (which is ironic, since I'm a flu virus).

Still a little unsure of the best course of action, I slowly descended the hilltop and entered the frightening metropolis. Maybe I could find someone who could give me directions to the nearest finger. I knew it was unlikely, but pretty much anything seemed better than turning around and going back into creepsville caves.

Once in the city, I regretted this decision. The cells in the city weren't all too friendly.  They all stared at me as I walked by as if I didn't belong. I realize I didn't belong there, but did they have to make it so obvious? I was too paralyzed in fear and awkwardness to even say hello.

One of the cells finally approached me. I thought he was going to ask me if I needed any help, but instead he pointed and yelled, "Hey, that's you! You're a bad guy!"

I calmly explained that I'd never been here before--that clearly there was some mistake.

I explained how I came to be in this city, and how I meant no one any harm, but simply wanted to get back to my home on the finger. Surely this cell would understand.

Surely he would take pity and help me find my way home.

It was all going to be okay.

Surely the cell was just taking this absurdly long time to respond because he was thinking of a genius plan to get me home.


The cell finally broke the silence and screamed, "Virus! Help me!"

I don't know what came over me at that point, but I found myself running as fast as I could. I knew I had done nothing wrong, but there was clearly no reasoning with these cells. I just knew I had to get away.

I ducked into a dark alley and hid behind a trash can. Yeah, it was pretty great. It would be the perfect venue for a child's birthday party or bar mitzfah, by the way.

I'm not even sure how long I waited there. I just wanted to make sure no one was still looking for me. I hadn't heard anyone walk by in what seemed to be hours, so I thought it was about as safe as it was ever going to be. I had to get out of there.

"Just blend in," I told myself. Only a few people know me here. I just have to play it cool and get out of this city.

Yeah, that plan worked for about 10 seconds. I found myself in front of a gang of antibodies.  I knew it was over now. Fighting would only prolong the inevitable.

Before I could even enter my plea of mistaken identity, I was flanked and tackled to the ground.  The antibodies were all over me, pinning me down, and I could hardly breathe.

This was it. As soon as one of the antibodies called it in, a macrophage would be on his way to destroy me. I'd never see my finger again.

But just then, a low rumble shook through the city, and the ground quaked.
The antibodies forgot all about me and scattered in every direction. I was free! As I turned to run, I felt the strongest wind imaginable lift me off the ground and hurl me out of the city.

I was spinning and flying in all directions. I had completely lost track of where I was. I couldn't make sense of any of it.

Eventually, the thrashing stopped, and I was aware of nothing but the sensation of falling.  I didn't want to wonder where I might land, but surely anywhere was better than that city with all those judgmental cells.

Finally I landed...somewhere. I was so exhausted I didn't even want to investigate my new surroundings. It hadn't worked out so well last time. I just remember how cold the surface was. It was lonely and stark.

I didn't care any more. I decided to just sit there--wherever this horrible place was.

After what seemed like an eternity (approximately 5 seconds), I saw something above me. Could it be? Yes, yes it was! A finger! It was coming out of nowhere, but here it was. I could hardly contain myself.  I was going home!

And here I am, on a finger once again. Warm, safe, secure. I just hope this person isn't a hand-washer.