The actual ongoing pandemic named “COVID-19” has dramatically raised the whole world about the existence of viruses that are deadly for humankind.
COVID-19, created by a coronavirus, is spreading all over the planet, forcing many industries to shut down or to lower their capacities and imposing a so-called “lockdown” over most of the developed countries.
At this juncture have you ever thought of the similarities between a human virus and a computer virus?
In this article, we will explain to our readers what biological and computer viruses are and by which mechanisms they can be linked together.
Table of Contents
Everybody knows the term “virus” and it is often associated with a computer virus.
A biological virus is a microscopic infectious agent. First viruses are not life forms. They are not ‘alive’ but they possess some significant characteristic that differentiates them from inert matter as well.
They are referred to also as pathogens meaning that they are defined as a disease. That disease is their “raison d’être”, their goal, and their mission.
Viruses can potentially infect any life form, including bacteria (which are also microscopic).
Their nature is mysterious and it’s unclear where and how they have been created during the evolutionary processes.
Viruses share several common characteristics with life but miss many important and fundamental points. For example viruses do not possess cell structures. They are therefore at the ‘edge of life’.
Viruses are often named as replicators, because they are able to duplicate themselves, like a ‘self-photocopy’. Their functioning is therefore different from cells and bacteria which are using Phagocytosis, e.g. absorbing a nearby cell or bacteria.
To that respect viruses try to duplicate while cells or bacteria try to merge.
The replication mechanism in viruses is fundamentally stranger to life. Viruses ‘hack’ cells to force them to duplicate the virus genetic code. They predate the cell mechanism and use it for their own purpose: self-replication.
Viruses are made of genetic material, proteins, and lipids and they cannot spread without vectors, which vectors vary greatly: animals, water, air, blood, etc.
Once again, a virus is not a living organism while a bacteria is a living organism. Therefore the behavior of viruses is to be understood at a different biological scale than life itself.
They appear to rely on informal mechanisms and especially replication which is the main way they seem to achieve their goal of survival: replicating and infecting more and more hosts with copies of themselves.
Viruses are destroyed by the immune system when they infect animals (and especially us… the Humans).
If the immune system cannot destroy them, this usually results in the death of the animal host because the replication mechanism of the virus can infect more and more cells of the animal and prevent vital functions from operating. Not all viruses destroy their hosts, some hosts can coexist with viruses, allowing them to be present in their bodies.
The idea of life in viruses is a very important topic in virology. As we mentioned, viruses are not classified as living organisms, yet they have an obvious activity.
They are inside a grey zone between ‘life’ and ‘death’ and they have been dubbed ‘dead-alive organisms’ by several authors. Spores, which are produced by living organisms, or some chemical crystals which can perform replications, can also be considered to belong to that gray zone.
As we saw, viruses are considered to be replicators, but they are not the only ones.
The class of replicators in biology involves many other entities such as chromosomes, introns, mini-inteins, organellar genomes, plasmids. quasi-replicators. retrotransposons. transposons etc…
So, are viruses nothing else but replicators? As replicators agents, viruses are characterized by their huge mobility and ‘selfishness”, meaning their autonomy.
In other terms, viruses are the replicators that seem to have the largest freedom among all the others.
Viruses are still an area of active research and their classification is a complicated and tremendous task, especially that new viruses appear all the time. … such as the SARS-COV-2 which causes COVID-19.
Viruses are important and ubiquitous biological entities. Their mechanisms are still not clear to us. For example: where do they get produced? Where do they appear from?
Viruses can be transported and exist in animals, especially wild animals but this does not explain how they are created and why new and unknown viruses regularly appear.
Viruses are supposed to have started around 1.5 billion years ago but some theories suggest “giant’” viruses could have created life itself and in general, viruses may be responsible – at least partially – for many evolutionary processes of life.
The relationship between life and viruses and how animals (and especially humans) acquire immunity is not well understood.
The information mechanism of viruses is also complicated to apprehend. The main ‘strength’ of a virus lies in its ability to ‘hack’ into the cell and inject its genetic material and this mechanism can often be quite complex.
The ‘hacking’ of the cell is the main intelligence of the virus. Viruses ‘hijack’ cellular processes to create virally encoded proteins that will replicate inside the cell the virus’s genetic material. Even more puzzling is that viruses can mutate themselves to avoid being detected.
The virus hosts and literally shields its genome using a coat, the capsid. What is represented in the spherical-like images of viruses is that protective shield.
Same as a ‘dark star’, the virus protects its core by an apparently impenetrable shell. This is what is usually depicted by ‘artist’ representation images of viruses.
The following picture represents the precise location of some 5 million atoms in a spherical type of capsid that many viruses use to shield their genomes. It was generated in 2009 by Rice University after three years of computations.
We also represent below three typical examples of the capsid (protective shield) of viruses.
The reader can understand already how deadly and dangerous viruses are because of their perfection: they are weapons.
Many pandemics that tragically reduced the world populations such as the great pestilence, the black plague, and others have been caused by bacteria – not viruses.
Bacteria are responsible for cholera or typhus for example but bacteria are different from viruses because they do not act as autonomous infectious agents, they are a part of life.
Viruses are much more dangerous than bacteria and that’s the reason why viruses are not encountered so frequently: a pandemic of an unknown virus could wipe out almost the whole of humanity in a few years.
Such a hypothesis was only anticipation and science-fiction nightmare… until COVID-19 appeared.
Breaking the genetic code behind COVID-19, understanding how it hacks the cell mechanisms of its hosts involves complex work. Technology can help us do so.
We have seen biological viruses and how they operate. Now let us look at another type of viruses: computer viruses.
Computer viruses infect computers. They hijack the defense mechanism of computers to enter into it and spread over all the other computers. The way they do it can be various:
A computer virus will use the computer hardware to duplicate itself by injecting its code into the stack of the host computer. Once duplicated, it will seek to spread by using a vector. That vector can be emailed, copy over the network, using the infected hosts to scan the internet to find other new hosts, etc…
We all know how antiviruses work, they play the role of the biological immune system. They possess a copy of virus signatures and search for it. When they detect it they eradicate it by removing any copy of it.
Computer viruses, the same as computers, are of course the product of mankind therefore to stop a virus it is often enough to stop the programmers who wrote it.
We should agree that the inspiration of a computer virus is derived from the biological virus itself, especially in its design, methodology, and its mode of attack (on computers).
The computer virus works in a way that infiltrates the security measures which are already deployed in the computer systems (like the firewall, antivirus, etc) and infects its host and performs the task which is already coded in the payload.
In fact, it resides in the computer itself in the form of software code, while doing all this stuff. Just reimagine that in case of the human body and you could understand how correlated these are even though they are different things.
Computer virology is a new discipline dedicated to the study of computer technologies specifically to viruses and antivirus, and it often encompasses not only the theoretical part of it but also experimental aspects of the topic.
This also includes mathematical aspects as well as the fundamental theories of computer virology.
Computer virology also includes topics like algorithmics and computer virology; immunology of computers and the biological models for computers, steganographic techniques along with the tools used in computer virology, etc.
Computer virology is an interesting area where research could potentially bring answers to Biological virology. For example, cryptography. Do biological viruses use some sort of cryptographic techniques to hide themselves? etc…
The gap between biological and computer viruses becomes thinner and thinner, especially with the rise of nanotechnologies and there are also some fears that computer engineer viruses could be created from mathematical and computer models.
Both viruses: computers and biological, share the same characteristic of some sort of ‘intelligence’. In the case of computer viruses, that intelligence is the reflection of the intelligence of the programmer. In the case of biological viruses, it is less obvious where that pre-supposed intelligence comes from.
While there are viruses for both computers and humans, computers (or all technological devices, per se) can still be of rescue to us in handling biological viruses.
For eg, in a situation like that of COVID-19 robotics and Cyber-Physical-Systems (CPS) can be our friends and saviors! They fear computer viruses but certainly not biological viruses!
It is a good moment to consider developing much more seriously and at a much larger scale robotics and hyper-automation. Robot nurses for example could provide efficient work without the risk to be contaminated!
Transports of goods which are vital such as food supplies should also be achieved by robots and should be able to work if Humans have to stay remotely isolated!
There are more than 5 billion people on earth! A pandemic could have dramatic results and we were clearly not prepared for it! It may be a good idea to start as soon as possible the massive automation of warehouses, supply chain processing, and transportations, factories, and fabrics.
Key and strategic sectors such as defense, aerospace, civil aviation should also be equipped with automated and robotic systems. Machine Learning is advanced enough so that we can start to develop them!
We have seen in that article how viruses work, both on the biological and computer side, and also how technology can be used to contain human viruses. The topic is huge and we invite the readers to document themselves about the topics that we raised.
Our comprehension of the fundamental mechanisms behind viruses and evolution may be strengthened by the study of computer viruses. This is a very interesting path that some researchers may want to consider.
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