Coronaviruses… deadly. Disruptive. And also weirdly pretty, aren’t they?
At least on simulation images like the one at the top. The real ones look a bit less spectacular in the microscopic images. 😉
One of the most comforting things we know about SARS-CoV-2 (and about coronaviruses in general) is that you can get rid of them by washing your hands with soap while singing Happy Birthday twice.
Well. If all things in life could be solved by singing Happy Birthday twice, the world would be a much better place.
But in order to understand why soap kills coronaviruses more readily than some other viruses, we have to dig a bit deeper – and you’d better hold on tight, because there are a handful of really important life lessons in there, too!
So why does soap work against SARS-CoV-2?
SARS-CoV-2 is part of the family of coronaviruses, or more precisely: It’s a species of Betacoronavirus.
Like all coronaviruses (and some other viruses like Herpes and Hepatitis D, too), SARS-CoV-2 has a so-called “envelope” as outmost part. The envelope is also called a lipid bilayer, as it consists of two layers of lipid molecules (duh!).
It’s in this outer envelope where the spikes are anchored which give coronaviruses their typical (supposedly crown-like) appearance.
But not all viruses have such an envelope. In fact, quite a lot of viruses
live exist happily without an envelope: polioviruses, rotaviruses (causing diarrhoea), and noroviruses (responsible for stomach flus), for example.
Which raises the question: From the viruses’ point of view…
What’s the advantage of having an envelope?
A lot of news stories fob you off with sentences like “the envelope protects the virus”. But in order to understand the advantages of having an envelope, we need to dig a bit deeper and first understand when and how the envelope is built around the coronavirus at all.
A virus is a “self-assembling” nano-particle. Once a coronavirus has infected a host cell, it takes over and makes this host cell produce virus components.
These components, together with components found in the host cell, self-assemble to form a new coronavirus.
(Fair warning: This last link and the next one are pretty heavy reading. I’m not going to pretend I understood it all…)
The envelope itself enters the party at a pretty late stage. Only when the virus is pretty much readily assembled, the envelope gets added around it.
This step happens in the ERGIC area of the host cell, where proteins and lipids are combined to an envelope.
Now, crucially, the components which form the envelope are partially taken from host cell material.
Or, in other words: The outmost part of a coronavirus contains parts of its host cell.
And that means that the immune system of the infected human has a darn hard time distinguishing the coronavirus from legit body cells.
Pretty neat, huh?
But the envelope has other functions as well:
As I said, the typical corona spikes are anchored in the envelope. These spikes help the virus to better attach to the future host cell it is going to invade.
Also, eventually the immune system catches on and tackles the coronaviruses in the body. At this point, simple modifications in the envelope composition (which happen anyway due to natural variation) make it harder for the immune system to identify all the coronaviruses in the body.
Now that we’ve discussed the mechanics, let’s step back a bit and look at the broader picture.
On first glance, it seems that envelopes are pretty handy things, from the viruses’ point of view.
I mean, they protect the virus by camouflage. They protect it by variation. And they enable it to invade host cells more easily.
But as so often in life, things are not simply black or white…
So why don’t all viruses have envelopes?
There are quite a few successful virus families (successful in terms of reproduction in humans or animals) which don’t rely on envelopes.
Like stomach bugs. (Way too successful if you ask me!)
But if having an envelope really was the coolest thing since sliced bread (for a virus), one would expect most or all successful virus families to have them, right?
Well, it turns out envelopes aren’t all sunshine and roses – they also have a very significant disadvantage for a virus.
(This is, finally, where singing Happy Birthday comes in!)
Remember that the envelope is also called “lipid bilayer” because it consists of two layers of lipid (fat) molecules, with proteins attached?
These proteins and lipids are held together by comparably weak bonds called non-covalent interactions.
And it’s exactly this which makes enveloped viruses like the coronaviruses vulnerable.
Like you would wash a fatty layer off your dishes with soap or detergent, you can also dissolve the envelope of a coronavirus with soap.
The soap contains particles which bind to the lipid particles in the envelope.
Since the coronavirus envelope is only weakly bound together, the soap particles can attach to the lipid particles of the envelope, effectively “pulling” them out of the envelope – and the envelope (and with it the virus) is dissolved into its bits and pieces.
So, in short: The envelope of a coronavirus is a mighty weapon and a great protection. But at the same time, it’s also its greatest weakness.
Which leaves the question…
… and what’s the lesson in there?
Apart from the essential fact that soap can indeed, to some extent, protect you from being infected by SARS-CoV-2, there are some other really crucial life lessons to be learned from coronaviruses:Here are 5 surprising lessons from SARS-CoV-2 for other areas of your life. And nope, washing hands isn't one of them... Click To Tweet
Lesson 1: Your greatest strength is also your greatest weakness
Remember how the envelope of the coronavirus is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness?
Well, since life is hardly ever pure black or pure white, the same is true in most cases.
Say you’re an expert in the true sense. You’ve got ages of experience in your field, you know all the rules and regulations. All the solutions and workarounds.
That’s your great strength.
But it’s also your great weakness: Because you know it all, it’s very hard to see and accept change.
That’s exactly what happened to IBM in the middle of the last century… Because they were the real experts and knew it all, they couldn’t see or accept that things might be changing beyond the scope of what they knew to be true:
I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.
Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943
Or your company is well established in your field. Everybody knows you and knows what you do, the kind of products you produce, etc.
That’s a real asset. But it also means that you have to match people’s expectations, or they might be very irritated and stop buying from you.
If Apple suddenly started producing ugly mobiles for the mass market, they’d lose their loyal customer base faster than you can say “iphone”.
The same is true for personal character traits.
Whatever you’re really strong at will be a weakness in some circumstances.
Lesson 2: There are different routes to success
Enveloped viruses are very successful by having an envelope.
Non-enveloped viruses are very successful by not having an envelope.
Obviously, what is success for a virus is a bit different from how you would define success for yourself.
But whatever success means for you, your group or your company… what other routes could lead you there?
Lesson 3: Things which are easy and quick to build don’t always last long.
Okay, so this one quite obviously isn’t true all the time. There is something to be said for keeping things simple, and for taking the easy route.
Just as long as you keep in mind that not everything that’s quick and easy to build will also be stable and long-lasting.
Don’t skimp on the time you spend on building up the important stuff!
Lesson 4: A system is only as strong as its connections
The proteins, lipids etc which form a coronavirus are held together by comparatively weak forces.
That’s not an issue in most situations – viruses are obviously very successful without using superglue.
But if you want to kill a coronavirus, you dissemble it by breaking up the connections between its parts.
(Soap and “Happy Birthday” twice. You know the drill by now.)
When you build complex systems, whether that’s in your private life, in your relationships or in your business, make sure the connections between the important parts hold strong.
Lesson 5: Just because you can see a crown (or a sea urchin), other people aren’t necessarily able to see the same
This one should be a no-brainer.
But as soon as we see or perceive something a certain way, it’s incredibly hard not to assume that other people see or perceive it the same way.
So if this is your one take-away from the time you’ve spent on this article, it was time well worth spent!
Whatever you do during the rest of your day, or tomorrow, or for the rest of your week: Try to catch yourself in as many situations as possible where you assume that somebody else is thinking, feeling or perceiving the things the same way as you.
’cause, as you well know, to ass-u-me makes an ass out of you and me, right? 😉
Bonus-Lesson: Singing never hurts
Well, this one isn’t really a core topic of The Hidden Things, but since we all could do with some cheering up right now…
Here are 12 reasons why singing is good for you.
Disclaimer: I’m neither a virologist, nor an epidemiologist, nor any other kind of -ologist.
And while I did my best to represent the science behind coronaviruses and the current state of research as accurately as I could, the purpose of The Hidden Things is not to inform you about the “corona crisis”. Our aim here is to provide you with food for thought, and to show you the hidden structures that drive our world. Please keep that in mind!
Also, if you are such an expert, I’d really appreciate to hear your take on the lessons we can learn from coronaviruses, and the hidden structures behind them!
Send me an email, or better yet: Leave a comment for all of us below! 🙂
If you came here looking to get serious, well thought-out information about the current situation, how SARS-CoV-2 works, etc, please stick to information by experts. Below are links to a few people that I personally found helpful:
Ian M Mackay’s blog VirologyDownUnder.com
Finally, your local health authorities might not be perfect, but they are a much more reliable source of information than any random person on twitter, facebook, instagram or wherever else. Just sayin’…
Images: CDC on Unsplash