Viruses. I’m quite a big fan of viruses to be honest. You know, apart from those ones which make you ill. But I guess nobody’s perfect.
In particular, viruses are interesting because they give a curious little insight into the prospect of life which exists in a form utterly unlike the one which is dominant on Earth today. Biologists are still arguing over whether or not viruses are, in fact, life at all – but a few interesting types of virus are certainly fuelling the debate. But if we’re to assume, for the moment, that viruses do in fact make up a form of non-cellular life, then that could dramatically increase the potential for finding living things elsewhere in the Universe. Even more so, thanks to some of their rather unique survival tactics.
This image shows bacteriophages. T4 bacteriophages, to be precise – an exceptionally common but rather unique looking form of virus which, as its name might imply, preys on bacteria. The viruses in this image, however, are pulling a rather interesting little trick. Researchers at Portland State University artificially coated them with silica (glass, effectively) and found that viruses enter a state of hibernation when given a protective glassy cocoon, only to revive when the coating was removed.
While these particular viruses were artificially put into this state of suspended animation, it’s interesting to wonder if any viruses may have evolved the ability to do this themselves. If so, it gives an interesting clue to anyone hunting for virus-like organisms on other planets. For those who advocate the idea of life being transferred between planets by asteroid impacts, you have to admit that a nice protective glassy coating would no doubt improve any organism’s survival prospects.
Assuming, of course, that viruses are indeed alive. Sadly, that’s one debate which I don’t feel entirely qualified to enter into. Although it’s interesting nonetheless.
(via NASA Astrobiology)