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Trillions of Viruses Fall from the Sky Each Day (nytimes.com)
183 points by aaronbrethorst 8 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 83 comments

>One study estimated that viruses in the ocean cause a trillion trillion infections every second, destroying some 20 percent of all bacterial cells in the sea daily.

That excerpt really put it into perspective for me. I guess I always thought that viruses didn't have much of an impact, aside from ocasionally causing a pandemic and incorporating themselves into our genome. But the thought of viruses killing a fifth of all bacteria in the sea everyday is staggering.

"Viruses, A Very Short Introduction" by Dorothy H Crawford, says this on page 21:

"There are around 10e6 different viral species in a kilogram of marine sediment where they infect and kill co-resident bacteria. Overall, marine viruses kill an estimated 20-40% of all marine bacteria every day."

Since the info presented in the article is totally new to me, would you say this book is a good intro to a non-scientist on this entire topic?

I haven't read it, but I have read some of the Very Short Introduction books, and they're pretty good for a layman.


Update: looks like there is a new version published last month, https://www.amazon.co.uk/Viruses-Very-Short-Introduction-Int...

I had no idea that bacteria had it so hard. I thought they mostly had "easy liv'n".

Given the number of recent articles about how gut bacteria may regulate body and mind, it makes me wonder how viruses may regulate those bacteria.

Most people are infected by a few viruses for their whole life and the bacteria inside us are infected by many. We don't know what any of them do or whether they are good for us.

Bacteria are the "grey goo" catastrophe. Viruses are the cure.

The Grey Goo catastrophe happened a few billion years ago -- everything around today is an inheritor of that legacy one way or another. Including multicellular organisms.

Meh, what is it about viruses that makes the NOT grey goo?

Or what if prions are grey goo?

I think grey goo's is pretty much anything small enough to be gooey.

Because they are unable to multiply on their own.

A weird bacteria or nanomachine might convert everything to other weird bacteria or nanomachines. A weird virus can only convert all cells to weird viruses, since it needs cells to multiply. A weird prion can only convert other prions to their form, which is even more limited. Both of the latter scenarios can be very dangerous, up to an extinction event, but they're different from gray goo.

Because grey goo is supposed to consume non-biological matter. Viruses and prions require biological substrates, and when those are used up they stop.

So, first of all, it's vague jargon to describe a hypothetical concept that does not exist and may not ever exist.

Second, the defining characteristic of "grey goo" is that it's of an artificial or synthetic origin, and hence, the "grey" part of the concept intimates technology, but not much else. The only other characteristic is that "grey goo" is typically depicted as a swarm of microscopic contraptions stuck on a runaway chain reaction, although the consumables that sustain the reaction can be anything at all. So, there's no real limit to the inputs or outputs of this hypothetical monstrosity, except that it's an all-consuming blob or nebulous swarm.

Third, you contradict yourself, since you ascribe microbes as grey goo, but then you tack on "non biological" sustenance as an afterthought. The microbial life at hand are not necessarily autotrophs or even consumers on non biological material, they are all heterotrophs made of biological material, eating each other. Furthermore the microbes are not "grey goo" because they are of natural origin and process.

In conclusion, grey goo is a thought experiment about a man made disaster or industrial accident, involving microscopic systems gone haywire. No other requirements are really specific to the idea.

Of course, I’m familiar with the term and its origins. Obviously bacteria were not created by humans, but they were a runaway reaction that ended up covering the entire planet and even deep below the surface. The early microbes were things like hydrogenotrophs (etc) that could feed on non-biological matter, although limited compared to the hypothetical technological version.

I was just pointing out the oft-observed notion that the development life itself (especially simple life like bacteria) was a kind of grey go moment, but is being held in check by viruses.

Seems like gp was being figurative, and saying that something like the mythical "goo that consumes everything" actually exists already.

One would assume the reproduction rate of the bacteria is sufficient to make this sustainable.

Easily. The bacterial population can double in just half an hour. The only thing limiting them is nutrients.

And they probably get a lot of those nutrients from bacteria that died, so it self balances.

Yes, in the lab, bacteria can double in less than an hour.

Also in the kitchen.

Yes, kitchen is a half-assed organic chemistry lab for doing what's basically alchemy.

Given that bacteria and viruses existed for billions of years...

That sounds like exponential reduction in the number of bacteria. How do any bacteria survive with this rate, unless I am missing something.

Bacteria grow at an exponential rate :) What at an incredible equilibrium. In optimal conditions E. coli can double every twenty minutes! These organisms live on a completely different time scale.

Indeed, a very special equilibrium then.

The lucky ones exponentially conquer the freed up space, then some lucky virus gets to them, rinse, repeat.

Reproducing at a higher rate?

I saw this quote in Nature last year [1]

"Viruses outnumber prokaryotes by ten to one and are said to kill half of the world's bacteria every two days"

Maybe these two are locked in some sort of existential battle for Earth while everything else is a side show?

[1] H. Ledford, "Five big mysteries about CRISPR’s origins", Nature, 12 January 2017. Volume 541 Number 7637

Viruses are fundamentally smaller than bacteria, so they’re not really competitors in the zero-sum sense.

Saying they are in an existential battle is like saying birds and insects are in an existential battle. They might kill each other and occupy the same physical space, but one can’t really replace the other in the fitness landscape.

> (There is a small group of researchers who believe viruses may even have come here from outer space, an idea known as panspermia.)

Fred Hoyle [1] is one such researcher. He is an astrophysicist who was the first to demonstrate how elements heavier than helium are synthesized by nuclear reactions in stellar cores. He holds a number of non-mainstream scientific beliefs and one involves the source and evolution of life on earth. He discusses it, along with other evidence challenging the neo-darwinian theory of evolution [2], in "The Intelligent Universe" [3]. I'm reading it now and highly recommend it.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fred_Hoyle [2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modern_synthesis_(20th_century... [3] https://www.amazon.com/Intelligent-Universe-Fred-Hoyle/dp/00...

This is a rare example of extreme understatement in a headline. If the figure given in the article is true, about 800 trillion viruses fall to Earth each day per square kilometer.

Hundreds of Sextillions of Viruses Fall from the Sky Each Day

Doesn't quite have the same ring to it, huh? I think they probably made the right decision to understate it here.

Per square meter, according to the article, not kilometer.

The article states 800 million per square meter per day. I converted it to square kilometers to get something with "trillion."

I guess the layman's followup question (if I may) is, why didn't something like Smallpox spread over to the Americas, if viruses are that prevalent? Why did they need a human host? Is there a specific evolutionary niche to not being infectious via the air?

It might be that airborne transport imposes barriers that smallpox didn't evolve to meet. Perhaps something like resistance to degradation by UV in sunlight.

If so, maybe the apparently large cohort of viruses that do survive airborne dispersal is only a small fraction of the actual virus inventory on our planet.

I would think that the virii that have that kind of prevalence are mostly bacteriophages.

This is the correct answer.

Viruses are also very specialized molecular machinery, and eukaryotic cells (and by extension, organisms) are quite complex. Think of molecular evolution between viruses v. prokaryotes / eukaryotes like a constant arms race: viruses have the "key" to (1) enter a cell and (2) hijack cellular machinery, and prokaryotes / eukaryotes are constantly upgrading their locks (mostly as a factor of diversity x natural selection --- the cells without great locks tend to be terminated rather quickly).

Also consider that it's not in a virus' "best interest" (from a sustainability / propagative standpoint) to actually kill or even incapacitate 100% of their hosts, which contradicts their very mode of replication (often completely hijacking transcription and translation mechanisms in a cell, leading to lysis). They rely on these hosts to survive --- a 100% termination rate of the host means an evolutionary dead-end for a virus.

Arguably, the most "successful" viruses are ones that have been incorporated into host DNA - it's estimated that up to 8% of our genome consists of endogenous retrovirus DNA [1]. After all, viruses are simply small containers of self-replicative material (DNA / RNA, a few proteins) surrounded by a protein coat: if they can hijack their own environmental shield (like, say, a full human nucleus / cell) and still propagate their DNA they've arguably "won."

So --- yeah, harmful virulence is (1) tough to achieve and (2) not actually all that evolutionarily advantageous.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Endogenous_retrovirus

How much genetic complexity exists just to thwart viruses?

IANAB, but perhaps the concentration is too low to cause any harm?

The possibility that viruses can benefit a host or cellular species is interesting. I have wondered whether the common cold virus(es) may impart some benefit to humans? Are we symbiotic with mutualism?

Could they provide some defense or warning against other diseases in the environment? Just speculating.

Depressing facts of evolution time.

Evolution will totally evolve systems where something is both necessary for the system to keep function and detrimental to the system. If you evolve in the context of "there are tons of viruses just all over the goddamn place", even if the viruses are constantly harming you, there is no reason your body shouldn't come to depend on them for some functions. Eg, the amino acids liberated from your immune system breaking them down could be a vital precursor to some protein or another, even as they continue to hurt you.

For a computer example, imagine writing programs to run on a computer that suffers frequent, intermittent power failures. You could very easily end up with a program with memory leaks that don't matter because the power failures happen too frequently for enough memory to leak for it to be a problem. The frequent power failures are bad, and you would prefer to eliminate them, but you can't because the program has evolved in the context of frequent power failures and can't run for long without them (hell, maybe the memory leaks will end up corrupting on-disk data if you fill up main memory and your hacky memory management system begins double-allocating).

Brilliant analogy. Especially when you consider how heavily nature conserves and multi-utilizes molecules and structures, it's not much of a stretch to see how what starts as a side effect can quickly become an essential machination.

Guess what... one might call such aggressive growth of memory consumption as a “cancer” which kills a system by taking up all available resources! And that cancerous behavior would never have become dangerous till some other “problem” was “solved” :-)

A human's stomach lining is designed to nestle bacteriophages (those viruses that looks like moon landers that reproduce in bacteria) in it and they make sure that the bacteria population in the stomach stays put.

>A human's stomach lining is designed to nestle bacteriophages

Source please?

Do what you want but I don't particularly enjoy calling anything natural "designed".

It's valid. To say something is "designed" for something can mean that it has a certain characteristic as facilitates its primary function. No need to have the annoying question of a designer attached.

Interesting idea; it strikes me there's a kinda mutualism.

If outsiders are often hostile, as interlopers won't have immunities the local group have, the incomers will potentially suffer a degree of debilitation - that is perhaps sufficient to give the local group the edge in battle, or to cement friendship through nurturing the non-fatally sick.

I have a theory, more of a headcannon really, that coughing and sneezing actually evolved (in part) to deliberately spread infectious agents, as opposed to less-atomizing means of clearing mucus. Airborn viruses are typically non-lethal (otherwise it would wipe out the species readily), and it would have the effect of spreading these and creating survival pressure which culls the weak, freeing up resources and enhancing selection.

The anti-outsider effects would also be a perk.

I like it, thanks for sharing.

Yes, but not for the reason you might think. Europeans were able to conquer the new world civilisations like the Inca and Aztecs (and many others) because they brought their special weapons - smallpox and influenza. These viruses and their European hosts did well out of this symbiotic relationship and it is almost certainly the reason we are now writing in the language of a smallish European island.

Anecdote time.

I'm not going to write a lengthy comment (that nobody reads anyway), suffice it to say I suffered from (clinically tested) chronic heavy metal poisoning and got chelation therapy (chelators DMPS and DMSA) with success far exceeding what the doctors expected (pretty much all problems I had that were attributed - including by myself - to age, computer/desk work, "that's life" - went away.

Towards the point when it all got too much, forcing me to acknowledge something was wrong (after suffering a tiny bit more and more over decades), I had ended up in a situation that when I got a cold (in winter) it just would not stop until May.

Up to this point one might just suspect that well, the immune system suffers so of course you get more sick. However, during the years of therapy I found that each time I still got a cold A LOT of "stuff" was happening and the symptoms that I associated with the removal of the heavy metals would increase significantly during that time. Also, I found that when it got really bad when I injected DMPS I got much better! Which (sane) doctor would recommend injecting a chelator when you got a cold or stomach flu??? (Disclaimer: Of course, the chelator only worked because of the underlying condition, obviously I'm not saying that it is an antidote against flu symptoms.)

Note that in my case the area of the upper jaw and around the nose was heavily impacted, unseen even in panorama x-ray the bone matrix up there was in such a bad state that when a doctor wanted to inject something into the buccal mucosa the needle went straight into the jaw bone in several places. He injected chelator and a lot of stuff started happening (positive, self-repair), a year later the needle could not penetrate the bone anywhere. Each time I got a cold the entire upper jaw bone area hurt, that's why I suspected a connection and at some point, when it got pretty bad (overall symptoms) tried the chelator during a stomach flu, with immediate success.

I (now) have a basic background (I'd say two years university study equivalent) in biology, anatomy, physiology, chemistry, org. chemistry, bio chemistry, statistics (medical studies and biology focus), neuroscience. While that does not help me to say anything with any level of authority at all, especially since I'm my only subject of "research", it sets a lower threshold for the kinds of stuff I'm willing/able to believe I'd say. I see no contradiction to what I learned in these "esoteric" theories.

Still, my conclusion based on (kind of extreme) personal experience is that infections play a role that goes far beyond "I'm sick". I stopped taking cold medicine as far as I could bear it because I felt (without prove, purely subjective) that this removed harmful stuff (other than the bacteria/viruses).

I would not be surprised to see negative long-term effects after we really "cure" the common cold and nobody gets sick any more. "Can't we just core the cold for good?" -- in the past I would have agreed wholeheartedly, but now I say let's be very cautious about seemingly "simple" interventions. There is much much more going on that we have not even started to grasp.

Reminds me of the movement to grow vegetable in shipping containers. Perhaps we have understood the full equation of plant nutrition in a closed system, perhaps not.

I will say I suspect your point will have a hard time gaining traction. I wonder if there is an evolutionary advantage for memes that promote deconstructionism, at least in this phase of history where there is so much low hanging fruit of things to deconstruct.

A person who believes a lettuce plant can be fully understood in a 1000 page report will endeavor to write that report and build technology from it.

Someone who believes there is an unknowable (in the near term) essential component to thriving will tend to say “let’s stick as close to tradition as we can... don’t know what we might miss.”

The payoff for the deconstructionist is invention, fortune, and an audience. The payoff for the anti-deconstructionist is better health, perhaps a greater sensitivity to what’s real, and a lot of blank stares.

> I will say I suspect your point will have a hard time gaining traction.

Actually, I think it's pretty main stream in medicine. Not exactly my point about cold/flu and heavy metal poisoning (which is extremely specific) but in much more general terms: "Do no harm" and a reluctance to do anything unless a person is clearly and identifiably sick is something most doctors subscribe to AFAIK, apart from those who make headlines (as a group and occasionally individually) for over-treatment and even too much surgery. They (doctors) prefer to wait and see because they are aware things are much more complicated than what they can diagnose. That's true even for fever, cold and flu treatments, where you'll find plenty of doctors who prefer to let the body do its job and only help around the edges and if it gets bad.

There also is the "too much hygiene" hypothesis not just for allergies, so I don't think that the thought that killing even something as mild as a cold and thereby keeping people's immune systems even less busy than they already are for most people these days might have negative consequences.

My wife (a critical care RN) asks “how did you get heavy metal poisoning?” And also “approximately how old were you when you started therapy?”

I would not like to discuss the first question in a public forum. I was below 40 when it was discovered - the total amount was unknown (how much is stored), but fortunately (not common for low-dose chronic exposure) I had significantly elevated levels on blood, urine (well, of course) and also in hair.

The biggest effect from the doctor's point of view was when the endocrinologist found that my double-size right thyroid with a 5 mm nodule had shrunk back to normal and the nodule had disappeared, which I had had for decades. It could be a attributed to the chelation therapy because during the first year already the tissues surrounding the that part of the thyroid became very active for a few weeks after each DMPS injection. That was the reason why I went to the endocrinologist again in the first place: I had suspected - hoped - that this had happened. Since a nice biomedical-imaging supported proof was worth a lot more than everything else, because saying "I always had more and more severe and longer-duration colds from year to year and now it has all stopped" and a long list of other things just don't sound very impressive (although the impact is much greater, I never had thyroid trouble, the condition was just there).

Having just read this article, how might this virus activity be tracked / measured back in time?

If viruses and bacteria are the forerunners of more complex life, wouldn't this be helpful to know?


Someone should quickly tell the king that the sky is falling down

Why does this feel a little like fear-mongering?

George Carlin on germs, really funny stuff.


You should have read more than the headline before commenting.

Let me rephrase then:

"Why does this _headline_ feel a little like fear-mongering?"

Unless you have an (irrational exclusive) association of "virus = bad/fear/disease" to begin with the headline is perfectly fine. It's just your interpretation made by adding your own context. You should try to separate what is actually there from what you yourself add. It's a statement of fact that sounds interesting and that's all, and unlike what the other person said it's not very "click baity", it actually is a pretty accurate description of the main point.

No virus that I have ever had, or heard of anyone having, was ever called "good".

I'm literally stunned this isn't common sense.

To prove me wrong, please show me any everyday circumstance an average person from the past 50 years would have had a good experience with a virus.

You should read the article and take a course in biology. Coursera and even more so edX.org offer excellent free courses.

To you last sentence: The fact that you exist. Viruses contributed significantly. If you had read the article(!) you would already have been told about that, including examples.

For example, quoting the article:

> Researchers recently identified an ancient virus that inserted its DNA into the genomes of four-limbed animals that were human ancestors. That snippet of genetic code, called ARC, is part of the nervous system of modern humans and plays a role in human consciousness — nerve communication, memory formation and higher-order thinking. Between 40 percent and 80 percent of the human genome may be linked to ancient viral invasions.

It bothers me that there are people on HN that keep commenting while completely disregarding the article that is being discussed.

>You should read the article and take a course in biology.

You have proved my point for me. The everyday person has never once in their life, ever, heard that viruses are good.

I'm an educated and well read, and I have only recently started hearing this, and only because of genetic manipulation. This is a _new_ idea in the last 20 years, and even today, it appears to be all talk about something in the future, and not a single instance I've ever heard of where you could get a virus treatment that was good for you today.

I read the article, I am talking about average people, not scientists who read journals.

It's shocking to me that people have such short memory. Maybe you are a teenager, but there was no virus manipulation 50 years ago that was considered a benefit to humans. And if there was, it certainly wasn't advertised to the masses.

> The everyday person has never once in their life, ever, heard that viruses are good.

Uhm... I'm shocked to find someone who seems to think that viruses have an effect only when people "believe" in them/have heard about them. Sorry, that's not how anything works. It is of exactly zero importance whether or not anyone has "heard" about viruses. I'm shocked to read stuff like that in this forum.

We were talking about the headline, and I repeat, it's a faithful representation of the main point, pretty much 1:1. From my perspective, I felt well informed when clicking on the article - for once I actually knew what it would be about before I clicked. That is a good thing.

The title of the article is this:

>Trillions of Viruses Fall from the Sky Each Day

I learned in 4th grade science that viruses are parasites. Having trillions of parasites falling from the sky every day is not a good thing.

Some mental gymnastics are required to conclude "parasites are good", but I suggest that the vast majority of people don't believe parasites are good.

Full circle. I point to my previous comments. You keep repeating your weird claims as if that makes them seem any less weird. The title is well-chosen. If you had a horrible education that is besides the point, it has nothing to do with that article. Sorry for your bad experiences in school, can't help you there I'm afraid, I don't understand why you bring it up.

My first comment was about the title being "fear-mongering". If you don't think saying "parasites are falling from the sky" is not fear mongering because you are more educated than others, then maybe you simply can't understand the common man's dilemma.

Perhaps not fear mongering, bu it's closer to click bait. You'd expect an outfit like the NYT not to stoop to such intentions and tactics.

Really? I thought it was more like awesome-mongering.

What is awesome about viruses raining down from they sky?

I don’t mean to be pedantic, but

> awesome: causing or inducing awe; inspiring an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, or fear

Trillions of viruses falling from the sky is up there in awesomeness to me!

A four-billion(ish) year old global signal transmission network! Think of the bandwidth in the DNA of trillions of viruses per square meter!

And possibly a galactic network, if panspermia is a thing. What's the probability of life emerging ab initio on an organic planet, vs collisions spreading seed molecules from a source planet to those nearby?


The fact that it's happening and we're still alive.

Doesn't this strongly imply that we are actually quite immune to virus naturally, and only that a depressed immune system is what allows viruses to wreak havoc?

You seem to think of viruses as all the same? The headline (and text before the paywall) does not say or imply that these are human-infectious viruses. They're just viruses. As in, a basic form of life, basic enough that it's highly questionable whether it makes sense to call them living. They're everywhere. As are bacteria, and bugs (rapidly descending in orders of magnitude in that "everywhere"!) But it's certainly news to me that trillions are falling from the sky; I would have guessed that uv radiation would disrupt ("kill"?) them.

>As in, a basic form of life,...

From the article:

>Do viruses even fit the definition of something alive?

You said:

>"...does not say or imply that these are human-infectious viruses."

Article said:

>"Viruses and their prey..."

I think it's safe to assume this article's intent is to share information that is not obviously known to everyone, that's it's supposed to be "news" (ie, it's from the New York Times). So let's not pretend that this article is a rehash of common knowledge about the value/state of viruses.

This may change when the viruses are made to deliver engineered payloads.

What happens if there's a bug in the gene code/splicing, and a self-replicating virus causes a worse problem that it was intended to solve? (this happens all the time in pharmaceuticals already) Or because a virus was manipulated, it can then mutates in a way that in it's natural state, would never mutate? (another unforeseeable result)

Viruses always mutate, and they are far more clever about it than any puny human. But fewer than one in a billion viral species has the slightest interest in infecting you.

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