Thursday, October 12, 2006

Beauty bare

Look at that computer-generated image of the polio virus in yesterday's post. The stars and pinwheels on its surface. "Euclid alone has looked on beauty bare," wrote Edna St. Vincent Millay. Euclid was a geometrician. The beauty of a virus is geometrical.

A virus has reduced life to its irreducible essence: a few genes whose only business is to make copies of themselves. They make do without the usual apparatus of reproduction. No flowers or bright plumage or paired sexes. No warbling or chirping or whispering sweet nothings. Just opportunistic DNA or RNA in a protein coat.

A virus alone on a desert island could never make copies of itself. Two viruses alone on a desert island could never make copies of themselves. They need a host.

Viruses lack the genetic information to make their own energy or proteins. They can only reproduce by hijacking the chemical apparatus of an invaded cell. Human cells, for example. What they leave behind is a mess.

Their name comes from the Latin for "poison."

The beauty of a virus is a matter of necessity. A virus has only enough genes to code for a few proteins. To build its shell, a virus must use the same few proteins over and over, like the repetitive pattern of patches on a soccer ball. Hence, the stars and pinwheels of the polio virus.

Buckminster Fuller didn't invent the geodesic dome. Nature has been wrapping viral genes in geodesic domes since the dawn of time. And inside each dome -- a single or double strand of chemical instructions with a blind, dogmatic message: "Build more."