Archive

Tag Archives: geekism

A few months ago, the word “Ebola” wouldn’t have meant anything to most of us. But since the outbreak in West Africa started back in March and came to the attention of the media a few months later, it’s been all over the news! Having been taught about viruses in my clinical microbiology Masters, I’ve been following events with geeky interest and asking: what exactly is this virus that’s made the world so alarmed?

Instead of just re-stating the safety information and news updates that are out there on good websites like the World Health Organisation and Centers for Disease Control, I thought I’d write a bit about what the virus itself is like.

Ebolavirus (say it like a Yorkshireman: “eeeee-BOH-la”) is actually the genus name of the bug, like the Homo in Homo sapiens. The species that caused the outbreak in West Africa is called Zaire ebolavirus, and it was first discovered in 1976 near the Ebola river in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (used to be called Zaire).  Ebola is part of the Filoviridae family, so-called because viruses in this family look a bit like pieces of string – the Latin word filum that the name is taken from means “thread”. Marburg virus is also part of the same family.

Both Ebola and Marburg viruses cause something that’s called a “viral haemorrhagic fever”, or VHF. VHFs are caused by a number of viruses, and these viruses tend to be ones that have jumped from animals to humans. Normally, Ebola infects fruit bats. The theory is that these viruses are adapted to their animal hosts, so cause massive problems in humans because we’re not the same. This can be things like haemorrhaging (bleeding), hence the name of VHFs, but can also be vomiting, diarrhoea, and brain-related things like confusion and delirium, besides the standard “flu-like” symptoms of fever and muscle ache that you get with viral infections.

At the super-tiny level, the way things interact is all about shape. It’s a bit like those toys that babies have, with the holes that are different shapes and only the square block will fit in the square hole. Viruses have proteins on their outside that they use to stick to cells with proteins on their surface that are the corresponding shape. Then the virus can get into the cell and start reproducing. Ebolavirus infects cells called fibroblasts. These guys make collagen and are found in stuff called connective tissue – basically the bits of the body that stick other organs and bits of organs together. They also tend to be near to cells called endothelial cells, and epithelial cells, which can then get infected, too. Endothelial cells line the inside, and epithelial cells line the outside of things in your body, and that’s why Ebola can get transmitted through body fluids.

The reason that Ebola is scary isn’t just its horrible symptoms, but also its relatively high mortality rate (roughly 50% on average, but has ranged from 25-90% in the past) and the fact that it’s spread so much. From what I can tell, it seems like a big factor in this has been the state of the countries that it has broken out in. Sierra Leone and Liberia didn’t have strong healthcare systems to begin with, and the system has collapsed under the burden of this outbreak. They simply haven’t had the resources to contain the spread of the virus and treat people. And the worst of it is, with the proper control measures the virus wouldn’t spread because it isn’t all that contagious. If you look at the average number of people someone infected with Ebola infects, it’s less contagious than SARS, measles, Hepatitis C, and even HIV. If Ebola ever came to the UK, I reckon we wouldn’t have a full-scale epidemic on our hands here. We can quarantine people, we have beds for them, we have a health system with contingency plans for this kind of thing .

There’s no need for us in the UK to panic. But there is a huge need for us to pray for the situation in West Africa, for the people working hard to treat patients, for the patients and their families, for rich countries to help; and pray that God would use this to show His glory. No matter how bleak things look, it’s all in His sovereign plan that He works for good.

In reply to my last post, I had this question:

“I don’t have any problem with christianity and evolution from the POV of what the first three chapters of genesis say, but…. doesn’t evolution necessitate that God actively chose to create us through a competitive process whereby the strong live and conquer, and the weak die and are destroyed – isn’t that fundamentally contrary to Christian ethics and the God we meet in the Bible? Why would God choose to create in that way?” – TheologyJohn

That’s quite a poser! But before I can start to answer that, let’s have a look at evolution. It’s an interesting process, because it works on lots of levels – from the whole organism right down to the DNA itself. Evolution itself is more about the overall process of change in characteristics inherited from the parent(s), and is driven by various things (pressures that kind of define what is successful in the environment the living thing is in) to go in a certain direction. So water puts pressure on living things to either a) be happy with just floating around (if you’re veery tiny, like bacteria), b) swim around to get air/food/anywhere, or c) “breathe” under water.

But biology is beautifully complicated and detailed, and the important things in this are the smallest of all – DNA and genes.

DNA is a molecule that all living things have (and viruses too – but the scientists aren’t quite sure as to whether they are alive or just… undead), and is made up of two strands that hold together and twist around like this:

The backbone of each strand is made up of sugar and phosphate molecules (if you want more detail, you’ll have to look it up) and sticking out from the backbone are DNA bases. They pair up by things called hydrogen bonds, which work a bit like molecular magnets.

There are four bases that our DNA has: Adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G) and cytosine (C). As the pretty picture shows, adenine and thymine stick together, and cytosine and guanine stick together. The A will only stick to a T, and vice versa, and the same goes for C and G because of the number of hydrogen bonds that they can make (A&T make two, C&G make three).

Genes are regions of double-stranded (i.e. like the picture) DNA that encode proteins. Proteins are made up of lots of units called amino acids, and each amino acid is coded by three DNA bases. So the amino acid methionine is coded for by an A-T-G sequence. Basically, enzymes unzip the DNA so that one strand is exposed, and copy the DNA into a form that can be recognised by the enzyme that reads the copy and sticks amino acids together to make proteins.

It’s a pretty cool system. You know how much computers can do? They just run on binary code – two “letters”, 0 and 1. But living things run on a code with four letters, and this means that you can get things that swim, fly, glow in the dark, and make tea (a very important skill, I feel)! There’s so many combinations of the four bases that there are more triplet codes than amino acids, so each amino acid is coded for by three or four codes. Add to this the number of amino acids that our cells can use, and you have big numbers of biological potential!

Back to evolution. As I’ve mentioned, evolution works through change. Our DNA doesn’t stay the same all the time – there’s lots of stuff around that can damage it, and our own cells can make mistakes when copying and repairing it. So soon enough the base sequence of the DNA will change. Thankfully, we’ve got some awesome proteins in our cells that can fix almost all dodgy DNA. But every so often, a change doesn’t get fixed before it’s copied to make new DNA, and is part of the new DNA forever. This is a mutation. Sadly, mutations don’t mean that we can get new super-human powers or turn into human lizards or whatever. Sorry, superhero fans. But they can affect the proteins that are made from them. Having a different amino acid in a protein can change its shape, or whether or not it can do the job it’s meant to do, or not affect anything – remember I said that every amino acid has a few codes? It’s a good failsafe against problematic mutations.

So these mutations change proteins, which can change what the proteins do. They could change how a protein looks, giving a different colour of hair; or how it functions, giving some form of intolerance. Basically, proteins do pretty much everything.

The important thing in survival genetics is passing on your DNA to the next generation. Don’t ask me why, it’s just the way it is. DNA can’t think, it doesn’t want anything, but for some reason the main purpose of living things is to pass their genetic information on (or so I’m told). So living things reproduce a lot!

Back to the big picture. In an environment (let’s say my back garden) there are lots of things going on. The air will be a certain temperature, it will be sunny in different places, and there could well be things that eat you (especially the neighbour’s cat). You’ll have to search for food. You’ll have to sleep somewhere. All of these things put pressure on things living in the environment – called selection pressure because they select for different characteristics. Being under the apple tree selects for things that can live in the shade. Being slimy and hungry for the home-grown peas selects for things that can hide from my slug-killing mum. And so on. In the case of the slugs, the pressures on them will select for mutations that mean that somehow they can survive the slug holocaust that happens after a rainy spell.

That’s only half of the story, though. Natural selection – pressure from the environment and competition to survive with other living things – only accounts for the survival part of the story. Reproduction is also really important. With living things that don’t have sex, reproduction is pretty easy. Most of the time, it’s just growing and dividing like bacteria, so new characteristics that come from mutations are passed down the generations fairly simply. Characteristics that don’t work get killed off with the bacteria that fail at life because of them. But for living things that do have sex, it gets more complicated. After all, someone else has to want to reproduce with you. So besides the fairly logical “survival of the fittest” there’s the “survival of the hottest”.  This means that you can get some random things developing, like long tails, or bright feathers, or weird courting rituals, just because the opposite sex like it. The theory goes that these things must show something about the individual that is good for survival, like “I’m so awesome that I can put energy into PRETTY COLOURS!!!” Of course you’d want the Awesome Gene for your offspring because it makes them better at surviving, which means your genes will live on. Granted, you do have to share gene-space with your mate’s genes in your offspring, but combining can be a good thing. It can get rid of dodgy genes, and create more diversity.

So there’s natural and sexual selection, which are both part of evolution. It is a bit brutal, because it’s all about death and dog-eat-dog survival.

Why would God choose to create like this?

To be honest, I don’t know for sure. Death is a fundamental part of evolution, and if God created by evolution, we have an inconsistency with the Genesis account where death didn’t happen until after Adam and Eve (the first humans, according to the Bible) made a big booboo by eating that fruit. So we’ve got a problem there. Personally, I’m ok for this to be a grey area. I know that God created the world and that the Bible is true. I also know that evolution is a pretty sound theory – it underpins pretty much all of our understanding of living things, and it works. The details between the theology and science are tricky, because we simply weren’t there so we can’t know for sure, but what could (I stress could; I’m no expert) have happened is that death was there, but it’s spiritual death that Adam and Eve introduced.

However, to create a process that not only makes new versions of things, but continually does so, while adapting to all changes and pressures around, is pretty clever. I think it’s incredibly creative.

There’s a paper by R.J. Berry and published free online by the Faraday Institute that talks about evolution, and it’s well worth a look: (http://www.st-edmunds.cam.ac.uk/faraday/resources/faraday%20papers/Faraday%20Paper%2012%20Berry_EN.pdf). Seriously, go and read it, it’s only four pages long. On p.3 it mentions that even Darwin had a problem with the brutal nature of evolution. Unfortunately, there’s not much to reconcile the ideas of brutal evolution and a loving, compassionate God in the paper. BUT it does say that there is a value to pain and suffering – pain is a good protective mechanism, and tells us when something is wrong, and suffering helps to mature us (Proverbs 23:13; Romans 5:3; Hebrews 5:8). Also, it is through Jesus’ suffering and death that we have a way of escaping suffering in hell, and what Jesus did on the cross affects the natural world as well as our human world – we have hope of everything being renewed in heaven.

It pains me not to give a conclusive answer, but I hope that’s helped!


I relied heavily on my first year genetics notes for this, so thanks to the lecturers! And credit to the Faraday Institute for the insights from their paper as well. Go and look them up, they’ve published some fascinating papers on science and religion (Christianity in particular) that are very faithful to both the science and religious thought.

Hi guys,

I hope to start posting about sciencey stuff soon – especially biology (since that’s what my degree was). I’ve noticed that there’s a lot of stuff that I thought everyone knew because it was basic information for my degree and A-levels, but actually people don’t quite know. It’s not a clever-than-thou thing, it’s just that school doesn’t always teach you why water and oil don’t mix, or why genetics isn’t quite as scary as the movies (or the press, to be honest) make it – but can still be pretty cool, or why you can believe in God and think that evolution works, or why biology is awesome. You poor, deprived people.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a bit of a biology geek… and when I say ‘bit’ I mean “you are such a geek!” happens quite a lot. So a chance to rabbit on about one of my favourite subjects is going to be a lot of fun. Hopefully there’ll be some hilariously-badly-drawn pictures too.

So if you want me to find out anything for you, or post about anything sciencey, leave me a comment!

Science and Belief

A blog about the positive interactions between science and faith.

Beyond the guide book

Ramblings of a compulsive travel addict

littlelifeofsquirrel

Thoughts, smiles, and 'Sarah moments'

Anglican Memes

a humour site about the Church of England

Hymns in My Heart

Sharing thoughts on my favorite hymns and Christian songs that have brought me comfort, joy and inspiration to worship Jesus Christ.

Christ the Truth

Jesus is the Word of God

Christ is Beautiful

"I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them." – Jesus (John 17:26)

phil moore

Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs

The Knight of Nottingham

Blogging about God, Nottingham and nursing

Phil Whitehead

... needs a cool tagline ...

The mighty mighty Monk Seal

Is bringing you the zeitgeist of now

From the Vicarage

Henry Curran's musings