liveonearth (liveonearth) wrote,

Science Pub on Viruses from the Primordial Ooze

We went to the Mission last night to hear about Viruses from Hell, and it turns out the speaker was a PhD professor who is into viruses that come from acidic hotsprings. He looks a lot like my friend Gordon who is also a brilliant academic--something about that jutting forehead must allow for extra brains. Ken Stedman is a professor at Portland State University who has made a career of viruses. His research has mostly involved examining the genomes of extremophile viruses and comparing them. It was faintly interesting to me--genetics is interesting, and yet I am so homocentric. I really want to know about bacteriophage therapy for healing horrible infections. I want to hear about the evolution of the flu. But his research wasn't about this and his talk was about the questions that will ensure that he gets grants and funding in the future. I couldn't help but to think of the right wing perspective that academics are parasites on society and perform no useful function other than keeping themselves in priuses. There is truth it that, though it is also true that there is nothing more important for our future than to keep investigating our world and what is in it. Scientists have specialized training that makes it possible for them to think of things that I don't have words or concepts for. There is so much more of the world to know about. I am learning this narrow fraction that is medicine, and it is more than I can ever take in. Within that sea I must pick a drop.

Circling back to VIRUSES, I did bring home a few interesting factoids. I call things factoids until they've been demonstrated beyond the shade of MY doubt. He defines viruses in several ways but my favorite was "a capsid encoding organism", also known as a phage. He told us that the major reservoir of viruses on the planet is in seawater, though they infect everything else that lives. Some 5% of the oxygen in our atmosphere is produced by bacteria that are infected with viruses. The viruses increase the oxygen-production of these microbes. I learned that 10% of the human genome is viral---and this is just the ones that have been demonstrated beyond a shade of HIS doubt. Professor Stedman said that up to 43% of the human genome could be viral, and that many of the genes we got from viruses are important ones, without which we would not be here. Apparently all placental mammals share one particular viral gene so it got in there a long time ago.

One of the main points that Professor Stedman made was how much of the world is made up of viruses, and how small they are. He said that if you put all the Earth's viruses end to end the lineup would reach to the Andromeda Galaxy. And they'd weigh more than some huge number of whales, and so on.

One nice thing about going to science pubs is being around people for whom evolution just is, instead of having to debate about it. It makes me realize how much energy I put into defending a basic scientific mindset. Too many groovy spiritual people and homeopaths in my life. They stress me out.

For today my mantra is "it is OK to do nothing" and I have been enjoying it. I need to take breaks more often. And journal. Just for me.
Tags: evolution, genetics, mantra, medicine, microbes, my life, oceans, politics, science, viruses

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