Off-Centre Society

The wolves of Molecular Street: Beware of the despicable character of retroviruses

Abstract flat vector illustration including hand drawn grain effects showing concept of a women scientist developing mRNA vaccines. SM

Abstract flat vector illustration including hand drawn grain effects showing concept of a women scientist developing mRNA vaccines. SM

Dogma. A word that refers to the repetitive nature of certain processes, ideologies, and, in general, loops. Most humans tend to be slaves to such loops. And successful humans tend to be people who have escaped loops in socially unacceptable ways. Popstars embracing addictions. Scientists experimenting on themselves. Nobel laureates with rotten personal lives. Businessmen with abhorrent personality traits. While aberrant behaviour does not guarantee meteoric career rises, sticking to conventional and conservative routines guarantees mediocrity at the very least. So, we strive toward healthy routines because the probability of ending up piss-poor becomes negligible.

But this is not a self-help article, so let’s get down to biochemistry. Like individuals in the human population, individual species also prefer following the “Central Dogma,” a term coined by Francis Crick in 1958. I prefer calling it the ‘Molecular Street.’ It essentially means that DNA strands possess the information to create polymer proteins, but in order to do that, they must first print out an intermediate RNA. We are all familiar with the double helical structure of the DNA, which looks like a circus rope-ladder in twists. The RNA molecule, on the other hand, has the appearance of a simple singular string.

Aberrant species

Most organisms depend on this dogma because the double helix of the DNA is extremely stable and does not incorporate changes (mutations) easily. This leads to a reliable transfer of information across generations, and the chances of undesirable genetic manifestations, such as a helical vertebral column or rubbery limbs, are mitigated. Unless one is exposed to catastrophes such as methyl isocyanate leaks, nuclear plant explosions or tobacco, DNA tend to stay intact for the most part.

So, the rock bottom, if this dogma is followed carefully with least possible enzymatic errors, would be patterned baldness, poor gut health, and other non-serious issues. None of which is as bad as fluid bones. After all, what are the chances that a person who wakes up on time, reads, exercises and works regularly, chews food and works on their manners, will end up on the road penniless and friendless? However, some aberrant species, just like some people, can still ‘make it’ in the real world by escaping this dogma. Retroviruses are one such example. They do not possess any DNA whatsoever. Instead, they transfer their hereditary information through RNA molecules. Much before DNA evolved, RNA was the genetic blueprint — thus the prefix ‘retro’.

These RNA molecules are highly mutable and unstable, creating wild offspring all the time. This property meant that nothing more complex than a virus could rely on RNA. So the switch was made to chemically stable DNA. This would mean one extra step of transcripting RNA, prior to synthesising proteins. This is energetically expensive but relying on DNA meant the evolution of complex species. Such individuals could acquire greater quantities of energy, thereby making the modern-day Central Dogma affordable for the common species. At some point in history, retroviruses must have protested, for they did not make the switch to DNA. They instead developed an X-factor in the form of an enzyme called reverse transcriptase, which can manufacture the double helical structure of the DNA from an RNA molecule. These DNA molecules then get incorporated into the hosts of the retroviral parasites. Once incorporated, the hosts, which know no way of escaping the dogma, start producing viral RNA, utilising their own hard-earned nutrients and energy.

It is because retroviruses adopt such unethical means that I call them ‘the wolves of Molecular Street.’

Despicable character

It is this despicable character of retroviruses that makes manufacturing vaccines for retroviruses like HIV and corona such a pain. The fact that they mutate so easily means that they keep manufacturing new types of proteins on the run.

With all this information at hand, it is imperative that we have patience with our medical professionals and governments. Booster shots, repeat lockdowns, travel restrictions may seem like fascist diktats and infuriate us, but the truth of the matter is that we are dealing with a rapidly mutating group of molecules that do not possess intent or minds. Disclaimer: The processes and molecules explained here have been anthropomorphised and it may seem that conscious and intelligent decisions are made; in actuality, the ideas are secular and random, driven by laws of physics and probability.

We might tell ourselves that the virus is mutating towards less virulent strains in its best interests but, again, mutations are not directional and viruses have no interests. We need to brace ourselves for the long haul, and accept that faith and empathy are our only friends.

The writer teaches at a Delhi University college.


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Printable version | May 18, 2022 10:22:04 am | https://www.thehindu.com/society/the-wolves-of-molecular-street-beware-of-the-despicable-character-of-retroviruses/article38338405.ece