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Ladies & Gentlemen, the 21st Century is here and we have a winner!

Diagnostics and viral evolution

The Imperial Russian government had a problem (no, not the Swedes). The Tsar wanted to guard against fraud over the level of alcohol for his vodka tax. Enter renowned scientist Dmitri Mendeleev. By legend he is credited with solving the problem and setting the 40% standard for Russian vodka. The difficulty? This standard was introduced in 1843 when Mendeleev was only nine years old. Genius?

But when he grew up, he solved a much more important problem that had stumped fellow chemists. With his Periodic Table in 1869, he introduced a revolutionary way of classifying elements. There were 63 known elements in his table, but he was also able to predict the properties of as-yet unidentified ones.

Our readers who did not sleep through their high school chemistry classes might recall column 4 starts with carbon. Just below it is the equally useful element – as popularised by Steve Zuckerberg, Barbie and one or two Hollywood actresses – silicon.

In another great but apparently unrelated scientific moment, Francis Crick and James Watson discover the Rosetta Stone of molecular biology in the form of the double helix of DNA in 1953 - and change life sciences dramatically.

By now, you might be wondering what Crick/Watson, Mendeleev – or Hollywood actresses - have to do with each other? Our answer is: everything.  The two discoveries mentioned above are far from unrelated. For our purposes, they mean human beings – sorry, this might hurt – and all living things are carbon analogue machines managed by a quadratic digital code.

And, funnily enough, the ‘carbon machines’ are now trying to build silicon-based machines managed by binary digital codes. No wonder so many interesting ideas have emerged from trying to better understand this analogy. Among the first biologists who worked out that gene expression is actually an algorithm were Francois Jacob and Jacques Monod in their Nobel Prize-winning work with e Coli bugs.

Take a pause to digest, drink a cup of tea (or coffee), forget the e Coli and let’s consider another bug, the virus. This particular ‘machine’ has been causing the world much concern over the past year. And with outbreaks of another virus, Ebola, reported in Guinea and Congo over the last few weeks, the virus looks set to continue holding centre stage.

The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines virus as: ‘Any of a large group of sub-microscopic infectious agents that are usually regarded as non-living, extremely complex molecules….’

Mmm…..Are all viruses infectious? Definitely not.

Are all viruses vicious, extremely complex molecules which indiscriminately infect, sicken and kill humans, animals, plants and embarrass inefficient governments? Absolutely not.

So, what are they?

This blog writer believes that, in general, viruses are the equivalent of  “code writing and modifying machine” that can transcribe, translate and transmit by means of digital code. Molecular scientists on the other hand are like Alan Turing’s ‘Bombe’. If you dive into the understanding of the Turing machine – remember the beautiful scene in Odyssey 2001 where the monoliths replicate themselves? – it all becomes clearer.  Transfer RNA acts in a very similar way to transient memory on a computer (ROM: Read Only Memory). Only more advanced and flexible.

So, looking at viruses not only through the prism of biology but through other scientific and technological disciplines, we might consider them as evolutionary data-carrying and modifying nano units. And like Mendeleev with his elements, this approach could even help us to predict the properties of as-yet unknown viruses based on the ones we do know.

In this writer’s opinion, regarding viruses from a multi-focal perspective might also explain many of the unsolved research riddles in, say, oncology and dementia.

So, my nomination for the winner of the 21st Century goes to…. the virus and variant SARS-CoV-2 for highlighting the virus as the carrier of evolution (as well as boosting the balance sheets of some Pharma companies).

What do we do with these ideas? How can we prove them and what about some practical technology such as BATM specialises in?

These will all be the topics of our next blog.

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