Viruses are objectively better than bacteria – DotW throwdown

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I am throwing down the gauntlet. James, you sir, have insulted my and my discipline’s honour for the last time. Time for a good ol’ fashion debate. Here and now, let the readers be the judge. Have at you, sirrah!

My opponent taking a walk in the Barr Smith lawns. This debate feels a bit wrong, like smacking a naughty puppy. (Photo taken by Dr. Christopher Wong)

Viruses are better than bacteria. I really shouldn’t have to say this; it is almost self-evident. They’re more populous, more deadly, more diverse, more resistant, more elegant, more beautiful and more important than anything bacteria have to offer. But we’ll go through this point by point, just so you get it.

First, they’re everywhere. Every organism on the face of this planet is attacked by some sort of virus. Think about all the different types of the organisms you can see (a dog, an ant, a fly, a tree outside, that guy creepily watching you read this article…), then think of the organisms that live off those organisms (mites, bacteria, parasites, fungus…); for every species, there are 10 different viruses that will infect it. If there is life, viruses that will parasitise off it.

Hell, there’s even a virus that infects viruses. Mamavirus is a huge virus that was found in a cooling tower and infects a species of ameoba. It contains 1.1 megabases of genome, which is bigger than some bacteria. It was so big that scientists weren’t sure for a moment that they were viruses. Then they looked closer and found that these Mamaviruses could be infected by completely different tiny virus, called Sputnik (Russian for “companion”). Sputnik-infected Mamavirus even showed disease: the Mamavirus replication slowed down and of those produced, many were defective.

Viruses are even in you. I don’t just mean “in you” in the sense of they in your gut, all over your body and sometimes infect you. No, I mean viruses have implanted themselves in your genome. Some viruses (for example, HIV) insert themselves into your genome. These viruses are called retroviruses. As a result of the human genome project, scientists found that only 1.5% of the genome codes for proteins, but 5% of our genome is composed of retrovirus sequences.

Even more interestingly, humans have learnt to use some of these retrovirus sequences. When a virus gets produced by a cell and goes out into the blood to infect new cells, it is exposed to the immune system (antibodies, white blood cells, antiviral agents). Some retroviruses have adapted to that by evolving a protein called HERV-W that fuses neighbouring cells together. So, to infect new cells, the virus brings surrounding cells closer and never has to be exposed to the immune system outside. But along the way, the gene for HERV-W got hijacked by the host cells. Now it is being used by humans to fuse its own cells together and form the placental-uterine interface during pregnancy.

Virus integration also occurs in all other species; viruses are an integral part of the very genome of these all organisms. So to completely eradicate the world of viruses, you would not only have to dredge the oceans, vaccuum up all the soils, but also completely wipe out any life on earth: basically, you would have to launch the Earth into the sun.

Galaxies in a bottle. (Picture taken by Thomas Tu)

And wherever they are, there’s huge numbers of them. Take a standard 600mL bottle full of seawater from your local beach: you are now in possession of about 1011 viruses. That is the same number of stars in our galaxy. There are so many (up to 10 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 viruses in our oceans alone) that scientists have shown that viruses play a huge role in the carbon and nitrogen cycles. The theory is that when things in the sea die, the carcass sinks to the seabed where they’re eaten up by bacteria that can just go off and float away. If this was the end of it all, nothing could else could live because all the bacteria would contain all the nitrogen that was available. But instead, viruses infect sea-borne bacteria, make them explode and freeing the nitrogen so that other organisms can use it. The production of so many viruses in the sea also requires 27-270 Megatonnes of carbon. This means that viruses can act as carbon sinks and may have a significant effect on carbon emissions and global warming.

Virus evolution occurs incredibly quickly. The 5% difference in the genomic sequence between humans and chimps took 8 million years to develop. To produce the same 5% change, Poliovirus takes 5 days, about period of infection to excretion of virus. With this amount of change and the amount of virus being produced, it’s no wonder that viruses have evolved resistance to most antivirals that we use.

Thus, James and fair readers, I submit to you that viruses are superior to bacteria in every way. Viruses are everywhere, infect everything, swarm the earth in huge numbers and can adapt to almost anything. Rebut, if you dare.


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‘Virophage’ suggests viruses are alive – Pearson H. Nature 2008 Aug 7;454(7205):677.

Role of HERV-W Syncytin-1 in Placentation and Maintenance of Human Pregnancy – Noorali S, Rotar IC, Lewis C, Pestaner JP, Pace DG, Sison A, Bagasra O. Appl Immunohistochem Mol Morphol. 2009 Jul;17(4):319-28.

Virioplankton: viruses in aquatic ecosystems. – Wommack KE, Colwell RR. Microbiol Mol Biol Rev. 2000 Mar;64(1):69-114.

Pearson, H. (2008). ‘Virophage’ suggests viruses are alive Nature, 454 (7205), 677-677 DOI: 10.1038/454677a


Filed under Thomas' Corner

21 responses to “Viruses are objectively better than bacteria – DotW throwdown

  1. James Squire's American Cousin

    Are they alive? No? Then they’re second rate. Fin.

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  3. Oh its on like Donkey Kong…

    @ James Squire
    Point well made kind Sir.

  4. Uwe

    I am only a little bit torn here between the 2, battleleines having spent almost all of my research life on bacteria and only a short sting in virology.

    As to the comment by Thomas, that viruses are a great carbon sink, well I would suggest that considering only plants and cyanobacteria (no don’t call them blue-green algae) can truly fix carbon via photosynthesis then viruses actually are only an indirect carbon sink still dependent on other lifeforms to actually fix atmospheric carbon.

    So not superior in every way.

    Sorry score 1 bacteria:

  5. Uwe

    Beneficial bacteria there are many examples not only from probiotics but their use in the production of various enzymes etc etc, viruses not many useful ones there except some experimental research on using viruses to kill tumor cells.

    Sort of like dog vs cat really

    Guide dogs, sniffer dogs etc etc etc, vs cats companions animal until it finds another better owner.

    Bacteria 2 just from my posts.

    Actually come to think of it cats are better killers than dogs in resepect to being top predators and killing wildlife so maybe a bit like viruses….
    not sure if this is a positive??

    • No I like it Uwe. Viruses are the feral cats of the molecular world but bacteria are the dependable, loyal hounds.
      Perfect analogy lol.
      I’d say +3 for bacteria at this stage Thomo, and I havent even posted yet!
      Where’s all the virologists? Wishing they were bacteriologists I bet.

    • Just quickly before I go home…

      Sure it’s important that the bacteria do fix the carbon, but if it wasn’t for viruses, the carbon would just come back out of solution. As soon as they die or they’re eaten, the bacteria release the carbon during their breakdown as respiration is not very efficient. Viruses end up being an important figure in sequestration of carbon (and other elements) in the sea.

      Also, plenty of things that viruses have contributed to: reverse transcriptases, retrovirus vectors for stable transduction and potential gene therapies, vaccine production, phage therapy are just some off the top of my head. Apparently material science has used them like biological nanoparticles as well. And there’s no reason to think that the virus component is completely useless in faecal bacteriotherapy either.


      • Uwe

        Good point Thomas I must admit that there maybe some use of many of the things you mentioned in the near future so yes there are some redeeming points for viruses in regards to being useful

        However, I tend to disagree with your point on carbon capture, lets be very clear on this point the current oil reserves have been laid down in a great part by bacteria (Cyanobacteria) in anoxic oceans. So bacteria are great carbon sinks, viruses certainly play an important role however, I am yet to be convinced that viruses are better in this respect. After-all the argument is about who is better.

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  7. Best analogy I’ve heard is that virus’s are like fugues. There’s just one small theme (the DNA) but they can use it to achieve so much.

    On the other hand, I find them boring :p

    Virus’s certainly win in terms of being more prolific, more numerous, and able to kill bacteria. But I find bacteria more exciting and interesting as they fulfill all the functions of a large multicellular organism but in the cramped confinement of a small prokaryotic cell.

    Virus’s don’t do all that much. They just infect stuff and spread. Bacteria can do almost anything.

    • Spot on Lab Rat, Virologists are simply over-excited protein biochemists.

    • @Lab_Rat: Viruses do more than just infect stuff (if you’re saying that bacteria also do more than just infect stuff and spread).

      They are one of the main contributors to horizontal gene transfer between different types of bacteria. Viruses can transfer, say, antibiotic resistance genes from one bacterial species to another.

      Viruses can also act as transactivators and alter the expression cellular genes, not necessarily related to virus expression. Endogenous retrovirus sequences do it in humans still (and I’ll discuss this more in my rebuttal).

      It’s the subtleties and complexities that come out of something so simple that makes viruses so interesting. The sexiest things in science come from the elegant and there ain’t nothing more elegant than viruses.

      @James Squire: Hah, you say that as some of the MLS building 37C rooms are being infected with phage and killing off E. coli preps on the second floor.


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  10. Bacteria. Did we not gain Oxygen from bacteria? therefore bacteria creates and sustains an environment for living things. Viruses may be complex however like most complex things they grow rapidly and thus have very little sustainability because their fuel is used up rapidly. Aren’t there even viruses in viruses?
    Viruses are takers, greedy monsters and creators of nothing. Viruses are much smaller than bacteria. They have no self metabolism nor can they reproduce autonomically. Bacteria provide stability and are enablers of many things. Also If i am not mistaken we can run various tests of hormones via bacteria, also treat for many illnesses; thus it is a handy tool.
    My OPINION is that bacteria is superior and much more useful contributor to life. And let us not leave out nor lead you to believe Bacteria is all that good and pure. There are many powerful illness where bacteria has contributed . . . thus showing off it’s power and superiority. (E coli, Anthrax, and Cholera) to name a few.

  11. NIH

    Did you know that the idea of using virophages to cure viral diseases was invented by an autistic scientist named Devyn Collier Johnson in 7/09/2010? Also, he was only fifteen!

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