RNA: Triumph of the willful

We humans like to believe we represent the pinnacle of evolution, even going so far as to characterize ourselves as being in the image of God. It is true, insofar as we can tell, that human beings are the only animals on earth with self-consciousness and the ability to use written forms of communication to express ourselves, and that is impressive.

Combined with our active imaginations, we’ve been able to develop technologies both simple and sophisticated, explore the reaches of our solar system, gaze deeply into outer space to observe our universe as it appeared billions of years ago, and plumb the secrets of the sub-atomic, quantum realm with all its paradoxical mysteries. As creatures of evolution go, we are indeed remarkable.

But evolution is not an end game, nor does it abandon its own past. To the contrary, evolution is an ongoing process, and human beings are smack in the middle of it. Impressive as we are, nature’s work is never done, and this current pandemic illustrates the ways in which our pride and hubris work against us; despite our greatest achievements, we’ve been humbled by the very smallest among us, a tiny bundle of protein with but eight genes we’ve named the Novel Corona Virus.

Life encodes information using genes, and these genes are bound into nucleic acids, DNA and RNA. In human beings, DNA, the double-stranded helix we’re most familiar with, carries an estimated 25,000 genes of information, the blue-print as it were of all that makes us human. The Novel Corona Virus, however, has its information bound into RNA, a single-strand nucleic acid much more fragile and prone to damage and mutation than DNA. Influenza is similarly an RNA type virus, and its frequent mutation is the reason a new vaccine must be released each year to combat it.

No prehistoric fossils of RNA exist for scientific examination, but RNA plays an essential role in the workings of every human cell. RNA is utilized in the reproduction of cellular DNA, and in some cases acts as a “messenger,” gathering together the bits and pieces of amino acids necessary to build DNA and allow cell replication. The existence of RNA and its vital role in the life process has led some geneticists to believe that before DNA, ours was an RNA world, a primordial soup containing the very first self-replicating proteins that, over time, advanced the evolution of both plant and animal life. And most obviously, as the Novel Corona Virus indicates, ambitious self-replicating RNA-based proteins are still among us.

We are a willful species, actively pursuing our own survival and enjoyment, eating, producing wastes and reproducing in great numbers. To greater and lesser degrees, this is the activity of all plant and animal life, and it is the nature of viral existence as well. Even something as small as the Novel Corona Virus, and tens of millions of them can fit on the head of a pin, appears to exercise its will and employ various strategies in doing it. Piggybacking in the lungs of people, it replicates and spreads, now the source of a global pandemic. Such willfulness, shall we call it, dwarfs that of human beings in efficiency and ruthlessness, but RNA, remember, has had billions of years of practice.

While cold comfort, it’s perhaps worthwhile to remember that both people and the Novel Corona Virus are comprised of the very same stuff, amino acids and proteins; it’s why we often interact so vigorously. The process of evolution, despite our wishes otherwise, never rests.

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