In the book Genome, author Matt Ridley starts chapter four like so:
Open any catalogue of the human genome and you will be confronted not with a list of human potentialities, but a list of diseases, mostly ones named after pairs of obscure central-European doctors. This gene causes Niemann-Pick disease; that one causes Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome. The impression given is that genes are there to cause disease.
As you might suspect, Ridley is at pains to point out that genes do not cause disease. At least they don’t cause disease any more than, say, hearts cause heart attacks. But we tend to notice genes when they fail in spectacular ways.
When it comes to viruses, we have to admit that they often do cause disease. But of all the viruses out there, very few are interested in making us sick. And since they surround us in such a thick cloud, they can perform an under-appreciated role: gene libraries. They are busy little day traders, moving their stock of DNA and RNA in and out of cells all day long. As such, they’re in a good position to acquire, store, and transfer useful genetic knowledge that bigger folk might have written off. Like bacteria, they take a beating for causing various diseases without getting any compensating credit for their health-giving talents and, I think you’ll agree, good looks.
One of the fun things about viruses is that, being small, it’s relatively easy to take their (virtual) snapshots. Virusworld, based at the University of Wisconsin, keeps a regular family photo album of virus pictures. There are some real lookers in the bunch. Check out the handsome reovirus core. And the Norwalk virus that ruined your aunt’s last cruise is a charmer up close. We have such a comprehensive three-dimensional understanding of some viruses by now that we can print out solid copies of them, like this fist-sized version of the pariacoto virus. I find it amusing that this virus has caused us to print out giant versions of itself.
Words and virus particles are both infectious units of information that depend on human vehicles for transport. Their flows are often correlated too, since a quarantine on words can cause an outbreak of virus. The Spanish flu flared so spectacularly in part because no one was willing to talk about it; wartime censorship locked down information about the disease. The very name Spanish flu came about because the neutral Spaniards were the only ones willing to talk about it in their relatively unfettered newspapers. In the honored tradition of shooting messengers, whoever comes forward to announce a disease is forever linked to it by name. Or, as we used to say in high school, the smeller is the feller.
The phrase Spanish influenza still sounds chilling to my ear. Our latest flu may or may not be on so destructive a course, but in terms of pure poetry, which sounds most menacing: Mexican flu, swine flu, or H1N1? This last one, H1N1, has the sinister sound of a science fiction villain, but I prefer it. Its name is based not on origin but on content. Since it describes the actual nature of the virus, it gives me a certain semantic power that the dark image of a rooting pig does not. Semantic power may not prevent you from getting sick, but it can inoculate you against the formidable informational aspects of the flu: dread and panic. As these spread more quickly and widely than the flu itself, this data vaccine should not be lightly dismissed.
H1N1 is a shorthand that, like a Mafia nickname, both describes and identifies. Fat Tony. Frankie the Beard. “Big Cough” Fluey. If you were a lung cell, you would see H1N1 coming and recognize him by his fancy coat, a protein coat studded with hemagglutinin subtype 1 (H1) and neuraminidase subtype 1 (N1).
To underscore the informational nature of viruses, here’s the genome: GenBank sequences from 2009 H1N1 influenza outbreak. It’s all there. Need some virus? Ask a DNA synthesis vendor (like Mr. Gene) to print some up for you. Should we suppress the NIH web site that tells you how to make H1N1? Or would that merely encourage the wild publication of the virus inside human rib cages around the world? It’s a complex game of information trade-offs, but one thing’s for sure. We’re better off now than we were in 1918.