There is a war raging within many of us. We are facing a formidable and, yes, invisible foe – the Coronavirus. Not only is this enemy redoubtable, it is cunning and crafty. To help us understand the virus, Scientific American Magazine’s July issue takes a crack at laying it all out with impressive illustrations and explanations.
This is not light reading, however. The medical jargon takes some study. You’ll have to navigate such terms such as endoplasmic reticulum, macrophage, glycan, and ribosome. The diagrams, on the the other hand are very clear. The magazine gives credit to its senior graphics editor, Jen Christiansen for that.
To me, Christiansen’s layout is akin to a battle map of a war taking place at a tiny, microscopic level. For example, picture the coronavirus as an invading army. Battalions of that army could be the virus particles called SARS-CoV-2. Those particles are armed with spear-like weapons, called spike proteins. Now, these are airborne battalions floating among us like cloaked Klingon warships. We can’t see them. But they see us and when they find an opening…our nose or mouth…they attack!
The invasion thus begins. The battalions close in on the positions that populate our lungs. As they do, the enemy looks for weak spots in our defensive line. Those weak spots are enzymes known as ACE2 receptors, which normally are supposed to help regulate our blood pressure. But, now, they seem like spies for the invading army. They allow the battalions to use their spears, their spike proteins, to latch onto and penetrate our positions, the cells of our lungs.
Here’s where the enemy gets very sneaky. The spear-like spikes pull the membranes of the virus particle and the lung cell together, like pirates once did when they attacked other ships on the high seas. In doing so, the spears tear a hole in our defensive line. Enemy soldiers, RNA molecules, pour into our territory. The battle for our lungs is on!
These enemy soldiers are like highly trained special forces units. They would be called Spetsnaz if they were Russian. Once they are inside our defensive perimeter, they really go to work. Equipped with sophisticated technology, the “Spetsnaz” RNA troops infiltrate what essentially are our cellular supply lines called ribosomes. Simply put, ribosomes make protein, which is crucial for cells to function.
How this infiltration mission is carried out would make the guy who invented James Bond’s weapons green with envy. The special forces RNA molecules distribute unique genes among the ribosomes. This is chemical warfare at the quantum level. The ribosomes are fooled into thinking the genes are friendly proteins, which they certainly are not. Like double-agents in a sophisticated spy network, these enemy provocateurs masquerading as squads of protein secretly begin to build storage sacs called vesicles.
Now the mission turns deeply sinister. The enemy’s special forces units are also equipped with copy machines. The RNA troops makes copies of themselves inside those vesicles. Lots of copies. This part of the enemy’s arsenal is so clever, some of the specialized soldiers have the job of proof-reading, looking out for mutations in the copies and make sure genetics mistakes are destroyed. Some of those enemy copies are tasked with creating more weapons such as the spike proteins. Other copies are loaded into troop carriers. In the macro-world a troop carrier might called a “deuce and a half,” or a two and a half ton truck. Down here in the quantum world, those carriers are more vesicles. Their mission is to spread the coronavirus to other cells or to be exhaled into the air to become new invisible Klingon warships for more unsuspecting human victims. Those are the enemy troops for which all those masks we are supposed to wear are made.
While this invasion its underway, our immune systems are desperately trying to defeat the enemy. Invasion in this scenario is infection. When friendly immune system command centers detect an infection, messengers are sent out, Paul Revere-like, riding so-called interferon proteins to warn other cells that an attack is underway. Friendly troop-cells leap into action reminiscent of a what the military calls as QRF, or a Quick Reaction Force. Molecules are created to stop the virus. Other cells, such as macrophages, are called into play. The macrophages act like M1 Abrams Main Battle Tanks to roll over and crush or engulf the enemy virus particles.
But the enemy is wily. Some of the virus proteins seem to have just one job – block those warning message from even getting out. The enemy also uses camouflage to hide his intent. Those spear-like spikes can be concealed with sugar molecules, apparently making them seem way sweeter than they are. They also can swing and sway, blocking friendly antibodies like a hockey goalie, preventing them from counter attacking the virus.
Up here in the macro-world, scientists and medical experts are scrambling to come up with new weapons to defeat the coronavirus. They are testing drugs that might prevent the virus from entering a cell in the first place. Other drugs might interfere with enemy’s cell copying machine, or shut down the virus all together. At least six different vaccine strategies are also being tested, according to Scientific American.
Until proven anti-covid drugs and vaccines are developed, however, the war within continues and the battle ground grows larger every day.