Let’s do a quick word association. I say “virus” you say… "corona"? Or perhaps "Covid"? This is a clear sign of our times and collective experience.
Like you, right now I’m following the waves of coronavirus infection and its spread. If I said “virus” or “viral” in 2019 you might have said “computer” or “flu” or “cute cat”. That’s because the exponential spread of viral particles is a useful shorthand, and analogy we employ outside of the world of medicine and virology: rapidly and globally spreading information on more and more computers and devices reflects the capacity that viruses have for exponential replication and spread across people across the world.
Viruses of any kind have been getting really bad press, mostly because many of them are reported to be damaging and harmful, and cures or countermeasures are difficult to develop. They are like something out of a sci-fi story: they look menacing, infect cells and use the cell's machinery to make copies of themselves before destroying the cell and infecting more. This is the stuff of War of the Worlds.
But there is more to viruses than meets our coronavirus-primed mind. Think about this: what if we could use the unique, stealth-like properties of viruses to our advantage? What if instead of infecting human cells we could infect organisms we want to get rid of?
Turns out we can, and it may well be important for the future: phage therapy. Bacteriophages, or phages for short, are a class of virus that infects bacteria – you know, the other kinds of microbes we have an issue with because they infect us and we’ve run out of useful antibiotics. Well, phages can be so laser-like as to selectively infect the one kind of bacterium that’s causing a specific infection. Nothing else. The phage infects the bacterium, makes several copies of itself within the bacterium and bursts it. The new phages then go on an infect more hapless bacterial cells nearby. This clever system was discovered in France and the UK over 100 year ago, and is widely used in Russia and Georgia.
Good viruses and no side effects. Similar approaches are used in the detection and treatment of certain cancers; a virus designed to recognise cancer cells would infect and burst them, thereby treating the cancer.
You may have heard about use of viruses in medicine, but how about viruses in batteries? Researchers have enlisted viruses to grow the microscopic scaffolding and surface of electrodes in some next-generation lithium-air batteries. Here the viruses are utilised as molecular-sized construction workers that make up high-surface-area battery components. These nano-engineered batteries have the potential of being more energy efficient, charge faster, last longer and are more eco-friendly. This is due to the fact that these batteries are made in water and at room temperature, with no additional organic solvents.
Here is the extraordinary twist: because the viruses are DNA-based, it is possible to evolve or mutate the battery to new conditions just by altering their genetic material. Granted, most of us won’t be doing that in our spare-bedroom-turned-lab anytime soon, but DNA-based technology is adaptable, much like computer code-based technology.
So, viruses can fight off bacteria, cure cancers and make up the core of batteries. What else?
Still in the power-generating mode, bacteria can be summoned in piezoelectric processes – in which mechanical pressure on layers of tightly packed viruses is transformed into electricity. Such technology has been shown to power small LCD screens, so your retro-digital watches may be brought to life by avant-garde, battery-grade armies of viruses.
Even better: virus-generated electricity could provide the juice to body-function sensors we may one day soon ingest or even print onto our skins in order to monitor oxygen, blood-sugar and other vital information.
Finally, less esoteric but still colossally important, it is worth remembering that the offending virus is also often the medicine that can prevent the next infection.
Vaccines prepare our bodies’ immune systems ahead of the onslaught of the virus against which we seek protection. They are frequently based on the virus itself – though an innocuous version – or other viruses with a similar molecular structure. Some of the world’s most devastating diseases have been nearly eradicated thanks to vaccines. Smallpox, yellow fever, polio and many other diseases are managed through vaccinations that prevent the infection in the first place and, consequently, the spread of the virus across the population.
Antibiotic, nanobattery, cancer treatment, scientific discovery tool or even disease prevention method – there is so much more to viruses than we’re ready to accept at this time.
But thinking about the future is all about seeing the path through the forest and around the trees. Although SARS-coV-2 is our enemy, other viruses will be our allies.
Dr Patrick Noack is the executive director of future, foresight and imagination at the Dubai Future Foundation