Pretty virus

What do you think? Should I show my cell biology students this 7 minute video before they go off to congregate with their disease-infested families for Thanksgiving?

That’s so beautiful and the sequence of steps so intricate that I’m impressed, even if it is trying to kill me. The video also demonstrates a lot of the cellular phenomena we’ve been talking about in class!


  1. wzrd1 says

    A lot of steps were skipped after cell membrane entry. All quite intricate in and of themselves.
    Didn’t know about the pseudoknot pausing replication, looks like a good spot to block replication.

    Viral infection and replication is intricate by nature.

  2. fredbrehm says

    IANAB (I am not a biologist) but I thought it was pretty interesting. Your students will probably be able to understand more of it and critique it like wzrd1 did.

  3. davide says

    Is there a way, other than attending one of your courses or reading some very thick books, of me answering the question burning away in my mind: how do we know this?

  4. says

    No. There’s a tremendous amount of background information behind that animation, lots of experiments and observations, and it would be possible to read a stack of short dense papers to see how it’s known, but to understand the papers you’d probably have to read some very thick books.

  5. davide says

    I guess I expected that answer. Given that I have backgrounds in Physical Science and Social Science that earned me a living or two, I must have decided that for some areas of knowledge I could accept the reports and summaries of other scientists that passed some sort of trust exam. I am struck, as I contemplate the approach of one of life’s bigger birthdays, by politicians in positions of actual power saying as one UK politician did, “we have had enough of experts” and by the apparently large part of the population that rejects with some force guidance on, for example, what to do about covid. Or climate change. and so on.
    The very clever animation you posted was wonderful to watch. Is our collective struggle to educate the population that decides by voting on funding of education, is this struggle doomed?

  6. Ed Seedhouse says

    I don’t think the virus is trying to kill us. It just wants to use our cells to produce it’s babies. Killing us is just a happy byproduct.

  7. SchreiberBike says

    It’s complicated, and as wzrd1 said, they simplify to make it clearer. It’s amazing how many acronyms can fit inside a single cell.

    I remember in high school while studying cell biology stepping back and my mind being blown that all that detail was all in such a tiny thing and that I was made up of a huge number of those tiny things. I mean, I knew that, but it’s still shocking.

  8. René says

    the sequence of steps so intricate

    And it ONLY took 3.7 ~ 4.28 Gigaannum for life to come up with this beauty of a killer? Incredible…

  9. birgerjohansson says

    Pretty, yes, but does it have agency, like that giant virus particle in an episode of Star Trek?

  10. robro says

    birgerjohansson @ #9 — “Pretty, yes, but does it have agency…” Not only does it have agency but it has an agent who wants to talk to the producers about residuals and sequels. Even a pretty virus has bills to pay.

    BTW I seem to recall a critique of these kinds of presentations not so long ago which show lots of space inside the cell where things can float around and move between cell structures…thus given some sense of agency…when in fact everything is densely packed together so they bump into other things rather than swimming up to them.

  11. says

    Viruses don’t have agency and don’t try or want to do things — that’s a category mistake. They also don’t have babies (it would make more sense, but would still be wrong, to say that the host cells have virus babies). This is not merely pedanticism–these mischaracterizations result in mistaken understandings and mistaken conclusions.

    Note that SARS-CoV-2 rarely kills its host, whereas some other viruses (e.g., ebola, rabies) are much more likely to do so. This is a consequence of what kind of cells they invade, what proteins they cause the cell to produce, and what effect those proteins have. Ebola and HIV attack the immune system — not because they are clever strategists, but because mutations that result in attacking the immune system increase the reproduction and spread of that virus. Neither the virus nor evolution–which isn’t even an entity, just a way of characterizing a set of processes–chose to do this; it’s completely mechanistic, like oceans turning rocks and shells into beaches. (For that story, see

  12. says

    “And it ONLY took 3.7 ~ 4.28 Gigaannum for life to come up with this beauty of a killer?”

    SARS-like coronaviruses became a whole lot more deadly rather quickly when they recently developed a furin cleavage site, which may possibly not have been a natural occurrence–despite what we are often told, we still don’t know and may never. And no this isn’t some wacky right wing Trumpian conspiracy theory, although many of those people have latched onto it for ideological reasons. Unfortunately, a number of scientists have been acting very unscientifically to demonize as “conspiracy theorists” anyone–including other scientists–who merely consider a lab leak to be a possibility worth investigating. Some of the demonizers have hidden their role in the demonization ( — they are among those who tried but failed to get a government grant to insert a furin cleavage site into SARS-like viruses (not for nefarious reasons, but to develop vaccines against such a virus). This is about protecting reputations and avoiding possible blame, not about science.

    A lot can be learned about this by following biologist Alina Chan on Twitter ( and by reading the book she co-authored: (Her co-author is Matt Ridley who wrote “The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature”, but he’s also unfortunately a right wing libertarian Brexiter coal baron known for his climate denialism).

  13. unclefrogy says

    well making their babies may be a softer cuter way to say it but closer to the truth than trying to kill us surely It is kind of a failure of any parasitic organism if it kills the host much better to not cause any disease at all or just one the helps it to spread It is mindless it is just reproducing.
    It is the very nature of existence expressed in more common language

  14. timmyson says

    I agree that it’s beautiful, and complex, and interesting, but it’s also a little horrifying and a little macabre for me. It’s like watching a calamity I can’t prevent, but also can’t look away.