Viruses are amazingly complex and beautiful machines. They exhibit all the hallmarks of being designed, though we often fail to recognize them as such. Therefore, we seek to highlight the strengths of what makes a virus on this Virus Appreciation Day.1 The design in viruses is highlighted in many different ways, from being essential during normal developmental processes to being used as novel therapy for treating brain cancer. It is important that we understand the design present in viruses because God made them. All creatures of our God demonstrate his handiwork, and viruses are no different.
October 3 is always Virus Appreciation Day. You might think that viruses are not worth celebrating; I disagree. We must realize that God designed everything—including viruses.2 The origin of Virus Appreciation Day remains unclear, with no real significance attached to the date of the celebration. (The only thing I have determined is that Virus Appreciation Day falls on 10-3 every year, a number which approaches the same size as other microbes like bacteria (10-3 m = 1 mm).3
Though the amazing design of viruses is often overlooked and deserves more attention than one day per year, viruses are celebrated by the fact that nearly all Nobel prizes in physiology and medicine can be traced back to a trait originally described in a virus. As I’ve heard, “Everything that I ever learned about molecular biology, I could have learned from [viruses].”4
Viruses come in a variety of shapes and sizes. They are even somewhat classified based on their shape—simple, helical, or complex. The simple viruses have relatively straightforward shapes like a cylinder or sphere.5 While their name suggests that their shape is simple, the viruses are anything but simple in their design (more on their design below). The simple viruses include the first virus discovered: tobacco mosaic virus. Helical viruses are found in a helical shape and include viruses like Ebola. The complex viruses, such as the myovirus bacteriophage, are my personal favorite because they often look like spaceships.6
Viruses were originally identified because of their small particulate size. Martinus Beijerinck observed that, after filtering out extract from the leaves of tobacco plants infected with tobacco mosaic virus (TMV), its filtrate was still infectious.7 Therefore, he proved that the infectious material for the tobacco plant was smaller than the pore size of the filter that he used. The size of the virus that Beijerinck isolated was 250 nm by 18 nm, the smallest virus on record.8 On the opposite side of the virus spectrum is the largest virus, the Pithovirus sibericum, whose size generates a certain amount of controversy. The Pithovirus sibericum can be up to ~1.5 μm across, which is the size of some cells.9 Because it is so large, some originally misidentified this virus as actually being a cell. However, since its original discovery, Pithovirus sibericum has been classified as a virus.10
Viruses are made up of protein and nucleic acid. The protein coat on a virus is referred to as its capsomere, a repeating unit that surrounds the nucleic acid on the inside. The protein coat capsomeres come together to form multiple capsomeres linked together in what is called the capsid. On the inside of the capsid is the nucleic acid, which is either DNA or RNA. The DNA or RNA on the inside of the capsid can exist sometimes as single-stranded or double-stranded. If the virus is an RNA virus, there is also the possibility that the virus genome is either plus-sense or minus-sense. The plus-sense or minus-sense to the genome indicates whether the RNA genome can immediately turn into a protein (plus-sense) or whether it serves as a template for further RNA production (minus-sense). After a virus enters the cell, it is important for the virus to begin making its proteins. Viruses make their proteins one of two ways: either as separate proteins or as a single polyprotein that is cleaved post-translationally.11 All viruses begin making their protein(s) after entering the cell while a certain class of RNA viruses, called retroviruses, turns their RNA genome into DNA before they begin making protein.
Viruses are obligate intracellular parasites, which means that they only carry the minimal essential components for making more productive virus particles. When considering just how efficient viruses are at making more viruses, one cannot exclude the idea of referring to viruses as machines. A virus acts like a machine because it exhibits all the hallmarks of irreducible complexity. Irreducible complexity is the idea that a system ceases to function effectively when just one part of the system is removed. Viruses travel light and only carry just what they need for a productive virus infection. So if you take away any one part of what a virus carries with it, you will no longer produce the virus. If no virus is produced, then there is no effective infection. Therefore, viruses are irreducibly complex.
No modern virologist can honestly look at a virus and dismiss that they are irreducibly complex.
It is important to state that viruses are irreducibly complex because that means that they are designed. No modern virologist can honestly look at a virus and dismiss that they are irreducibly complex. The design inference for viruses is something that most scientists and lay people do not readily want to admit because of the “bad rap” that viruses get. However, if we understand that everything (including viruses) was originally created very good (Genesis 1:31), then we can appreciate that these viruses are the handiwork of God and point to his genius. With the Fall, we know that viruses now overwhelmingly cause negative effects in this fallen world, and we face death, disease, pain, and suffering from viruses. But it is important to realize the origin of viruses as well as their original good functions. While we live in this current fallen state, there are still many good things that viruses accomplish.12
Many viruses are related to what are called endogenous retroviruses.13 An endogenous retrovirus (ERV) is a piece of DNA found in an organism’s genome; it has several important functions. ERVs are related to viruses because they have signature genes contained within them at their ends that make them look like a retrovirus. A retrovirus is a special kind of virus that makes DNA from RNA and inserts into the genome of the host, so ERVs are actually very similar to a virus that is no longer moving around from host to host.
ERVs have a number of documented benefits to the host, including (but not limited to) mammalian development and host immune defenses (see the list below). ERVs were probably what God created originally to provide for the good things in our genome, but the curse may have caused some ERVs to exit the genome and become active outside of cells.14 However, ERVs are not the only probable source of modern day viruses since there is strong evidence that the Ebola genome is found in the genomes of wombats and guinea pigs.15 It is significant for Ebola to be found in a genome without causing disease because Ebola is an RNA genome that never exists as a DNA intermediate—therefore it is not a retrovirus. As such, some virus genomes (e.g., Ebola) are found within the genome of organisms and in a dormant state. Ultimately, it would be great to have an explanation for the original location within a host genome for every virus like retroviruses or Ebola, but the truth is that we cannot know the original genomic location for every viral genome.16 While we cannot know the ultimate location for every viral genome within some host genome, it is important to point out that evolutionists can’t account for their origin anywhere. When I was an undergraduate student, I asked my virology professor about which came first—the cell or the virus. His answer has stuck with me over the years because he was honest in telling me that virologists don’t have a clue to their origin. Whenever scientists are honest enough to tell the truth about origins, we usually end up with explanations like these, because we all know that viruses are efficient machines.
The machine analogy with viruses is a particularly strong one. If you remove any part of the virus, the virus effectively ceases to function. Furthermore, there is a strong emphasis on the idea that viruses are extremely efficient at what they do. They do not carry more than what is necessary to invade the host. Viruses are streamlined to carry only what they need and nothing more. They will often carry so little that they require some essential elements from the cells they’re infecting in order for them to “survive.”17 Since they are molecular machines, they have obvious design features as already stated. But it is important to realize that they are not designed to kill things all day long. If we didn’t have Scripture to guide us, then the only conclusion we could make about viruses is that they are designed to cause death, disease, pain, and suffering, because viruses are elegant machines that can accomplish that. However, we have Scripture, so we can know that God didn’t create viruses to kill us like some cosmic killjoy. What most people are surprised to learn is that God created viruses as part of his original, perfect creation. Even more surprising is that we can still see the good effects of viruses to this day, despite over 6,000 years of sin’s Curse.
We know that we live in a fallen world, but living in a fallen world does not mean that the fallen creation loses the complexity or beauty that its Creator originally intended.
The full list of significantly beneficial effects of viruses was highlighted in an important scientific review article, written by (as far as anyone can tell) an evolutionary virologist.25 More often than not, viruses are only considered bad because they cause so much death, disease, pain, and suffering, so we fail to recognize the intricate complexity and beauty of what God made. We know that we live in a fallen world, but living in a fallen world does not mean that the fallen creation loses the complexity or beauty that its Creator originally intended. The complexity and beauty of viruses is not lost completely in this fallen world and are something worth pausing to consider precisely because God created them. If we fail to recognize that viruses are designed, but affected by a fallen world, then we give up their wonderful design and begin to think that God is disinterested in the affairs of humanity or that God is some kind of cosmic monster. To the contrary, God has not just allowed us to see the complexity and design of viruses, but he has (in his infinite knowledge) also given us the tools to fight viruses in this fallen world. Not only has God given us these tools for fighting disease, he has also revealed himself as a God of love who sent his only begotten Son to redeem humanity (John 3:16). To properly communicate the gospel, we must recognize the true origin of viruses in light of their beneficial functions in today’s fallen world. We should not be surprised when we find good purposes for viruses because God created them in the first place. We should actually look for those good purposes and celebrate them—at least once a year.