Animals at the edge of extinction may not have Twitter accounts to tell humans of their plight. Acidified coral reefs may not have handsomely paid marketing gurus to craft impactful press releases about the ecological collapse that is silently taking place just a few meters under the water surface. Koalas may not have strong lobbying representatives in Congress to demand a halt in Australia’s right wing CO2-emitting criminal regime. And bright white Antarctic glaciers have neither the speed or the colour palette needed in their language to describe the scale of the catastrophe happening in the polar regions.
But somehow, miraculously, benevolent Earth has used its infinite wisdom once again to find a way to send humans a message in a language that they can understand: a virus that is more than just a virus: it is a messenger that brings with it a warning, as well as some well-placed advice. Whether it is the last message, or a series of many similar messages, we don’t know. We’ve had enough warnings so far.
I’m a molecular biologist, and have used virus-derived vectors many times in my research to transfer DNA between species. Although we view viruses negatively, they are part of the Earth’s ecosystem. They have as much of a right to be on this planet as we do. In fact, the more we learn about viruses the more we can begin to appreciate their role on Earth. It is increasingly believed that viruses, through their ability to integrate pieces of their DNA into our own DNA, may have played a significant role in evolution. There is concrete evidence of multiple examples of “horizontal gene transfer” i.e. the transfer of genetic material between species that would normally not be able to mate, including species as different as plants and animals. The bizarre phenomenon of a plant and animal having almost identical genes for certain proteins can only be explained through viruses and other genetic vectors.
While for years science has argued and debated whether viruses are actually living things, what is certain is that life as we know it would not exist without viruses. Viruses may be dangerous, but they are also Earth’s USB sticks: able to transfer information from one computer to another, often from one operating system to another. While having no hard drive themselves to actually run the software that they carry, they are able to share this software across species, resulting in evolutionary “jumps” that dwarf the most impressive Darwinian single-point mutation-led evolution by any measure.
Coronavirus is here to tell us one thing: that we can live with fewer emissions. The stock market crashes, but the world keeps going. Earth is letting us “test drive” what a solution to the climate change problem looks like. Earth is the parent that is holding the bicycle while we, the child, is learning to cycle. Even after all of our mistakes, Earth has sent us this virus as a gift: rather than leave us to collapse and extinction, it is putting us in quarantine, in curfew, so that we can learn our lesson. It is the parent disciplining the careless teenager: “no CO2 emissions for two months until you learn to spend your carbon budget on more useful things like textbooks and food, instead of apps and weed”
In fact, Coronavirus is likely to have been a direct result of climate change. As species around the globe become climate refugees, they begin to come in contact with each other in ways that they didn’t before. Our ecosystems are in motion because of these changes brought about by climate change, which means that viruses are also in motion. The rise in global temperature also affects the proliferation of other viruses and microorganisms in ways that we cannot predict. Earth may be sending us more messages in the near future, even though we have reached the stage where we don’t deserve any more warnings.
to be continued…