A Virus to Save Us All…Sort of

NDSU Microbiology
by NDSU Microbiology

Guest Blogger: Francis Landman, VMS Undergrad

Recently, I read the novel, Inferno, by Dan Brown. It was a fantastic mystery about a Harvard professor of symbology who is recruited to solve a puzzle of clues to stop a global disaster. What starts out as a thrilling chase through ancient Italy slowly turns into a race to stop a virus infecting the entire world.

But before we get to this virus, let me introduce to you the two main characters:

Robert Langdon: Protagonist, Harvard professor of symbology, puzzle-solving genius

Bertrand Zobrist: Antagonist, biochemist, father of genetic germ-line manipulation

Zobrist is a believer that in the next century or so the world will experience an apocalyptic collapse due to overpopulation. He brings up many of the same points that experts today are talking about such as food and clean water supplies. To Zobrist, the rapid increase in population from 1800 (1 billion) to present day (7 billion) is just the beginning of a geometric increase in population. Zobrist predicts that there will be 9 billion people in the world by the year 2050. That number of people is more than twice the optimal range of 3-4 billion that can live sustainably on Earth. This poses a very big problem for the world, and Zobrist wants to do something about it.

His solution to overpopulation is a genetically-engineered virus. The vector virus works by installing a predetermined piece of DNA into the host cell. In the book, Zobrist designs a vector virus that causes infertility. In order to decrease population at a manageable rate, Zobrist engineers the virus as a randomly activating virus so that it will only be active in one-third of the population that it infects.

Is this type of virus actually possible outside of fiction?

In order to create a virus that infects the entire world population, Zobrist would have to do the following: synthesize the insert that he wished to add to the human genome, find a virus that does not cause a host immune response, target the germ line cells, and make sure the virus incorporates the new DNA specifically in the correct place. These are all very tough things to do, but not impossible.

One last hurdle for Zobrist to overcome is how to spread the virus to everyone on earth. Here is a short excerpt from the book describing this spread:

“A virus – unlike a bacteria or chemical pathogen – could spread through a population with astounding speed and penetration. Parasitic in their behavior, viruses entered an organism and attached to a host cell in a process called adsorption. They then injected their own DNA or RNA into that cell, recruiting the invaded cell, and forcing it to replicate multiple versions of the virus. Once a sufficient number of copies existed, the new virus particles would kill the cell and burst through the cell wall, speeding off to find new host cell to attack, and the process would be repeated. An infected individual would then exhale or sneeze, sending respiratory droplets out of his body; these droplets would remain suspended in the air until they were inhaled be other hosts, and the process began all over again.”

Dan Brown does an incredible job of integrating science into his mystery-solving novel. I would recommend it to anyone for an enjoyable read, but especially to us science nerds that like the thrill of theoretical genetic engineering and crazy stuff like that.

Image Source: xxlonelymushroom; This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

This entry is part of the MICR 354 (Scientific Writing) student-blog series.