a rose by any other name

When I was about ten my older brother Mick asked me a question. It was a hot, aimless, endless summer day. Dad was marching up and down the lawn with that ancient and electrically suspect mower he had; I was playing my usual game of standing in the snaking cable coils and leaving it as long as I could till I jumped free. I was surprised when Mick suddenly appeared. He was usually upstairs studying, and anyway, he didn’t usually have all that much time for me. We fought a lot – mostly over wall space, things like that. It was a small house, too many kids, not enough money. A solid, semi-detached kind of pressure cooker with a garden and a garage full of bikes. Mick wanted to ask me a question, and I could tell from the way he asked it – fidgeting from side to side, hardly able to wait for me to answer – that there was a lot more riding on this than just science. He had a point to make and scarcely needed me there to do it. I was below him in the pecking order. It was the way these things went. 

This was the question he asked me:

What are roses for?

‘I don’t know. To be colourful. And beautiful. And attract bees.’

I added the bees to make myself seem smarter and less of a target.

‘No,’ he said. ‘Roses are there to make other roses.’

He stared at me, daring me to say he was wrong. And I wanted to, I really wanted to. Only… I didn’t know how. It sounded crazy. What did he mean? Was he right? Was that really it? One long line of roses, from the beginning of time to the end? I mean – Why bother? Wouldn’t it be easier just to never have roses? 

Recently it all came back to me, that little front garden, Dad shouting, tripping over the wire, as me and Mick tried to kill each other among the roses.

It came back to me recently because I got stuck in the same way, trying to understand what a virus was, what it meant, what it was for. For making other viruses. Really?

Of course, one of the essential questions about viruses – the most basic, Mick-type question – is whether they’re alive or not. And I suppose using Mick’s rose protocol, you’d have to say they were alive. Virus begets virus. The life principle satisfied. That’s it. The sucker punch school of philosophy.

Only – that’s not it. 

The accepted view is that a virus is non-living. Which is not the same as saying it’s not alive. As always, there’s a hinterland of meaning and ideas behind these words, and they quickly lose their patency. 

Technically speaking, though, a living organism is supposed to have seven characteristics: Movement, Sensitivity, Respiration, Nutrition, Excretion, Growth and Reproduction. A virus only has one of these – and even that in a qualified way.

A virus is not capable of independent movement, relying instead on sneezes or random hook-ups, the innocent winnowing of tracheal villi down a particular respiratory tract. 

It’s only sensitive to its environment in that it’s vulnerable to UV light or excessively dry conditions, for example. But some viruses are tougher than that. An extinct form of giant virus – ‘giant’ in microscopic terms – was recently revived after being dug out of the Siberian permafrost 30,000 years after it went in. Another virus was discovered biding its time inside bacteria that live around deep ocean thermal vents. 

A virus doesn’t breathe, eat or excrete waste products because it doesn’t need to – which is a pretty useful adaptation, when you think of it. As humans, we need energy to live. We do that by metabolising oxygen and food to create ATP, the chemical compound that powers our complex systems. A virus simply taps into that, using our energy reserves and our cellular machinery to replicate itself. 

Neither does it grow, designed instead to float around until it finds a host cell to make copies of itself, cookie-cutter style, each version a clone of the original. 

But not exactly. Because although this isn’t reproduction in the usual sense, some genetic change can happen – and in some cases, like flu, very quickly and often. Sometimes you get two similar viruses with slightly different RNA or DNA that recombine in the host cell to produce a genetically novel virus – which either does well or it doesn’t, in the evolutionary way of these things. Which is why viruses are so successful, or such a problem, depending on your viewpoint. 

So is a virus alive or ‘non-living’? And if it’s really ‘non-living’, does that put it into the same category as – say – a rock?

The question is more nuanced. A rose is made of atoms arranged in a particular molecular way, as am I. Some of those molecules are repurposed into genetic material, determining whether we grow thorns or thumbs. So in that respect a virus is the same – made of atoms, some of them bent into intricate RNA / DNA ladder strings, determining whether they invade human lung cells or thermal vent bacteria. The only difference between the rose, me, a virus and that rock, is that whilst we’re all made of atoms, me, the rose and the virus have that specialised genetic material and the rock doesn’t. A rock is a passive expression of molecular stuff, sculpted by geological processes into the thing you pick up to chuck at your brother. 

I’m not a scientist. I quickly get out of my depth. All I’m left with is an overwhelming sense of the universe’s richness and complexity. It seems to be reaching out over trillions of years from one critical moment of expansion through the arcane laws of thermodynamics to some other state,a statistically driven force scattering infinite manifestations of energy through everything, every last particle of existence, until some kind of balance is reached and nothing further is possible. So you get viruses, and roses, and two brothers fighting on a front lawn, and that kind of endless summer day when nothing seems to happen, and everything does. 

Corona Q&A

Through the magical process
of viral zoonosis
a pathogen
can jump from animal to human
in the belly of a vector
some kind of primitive blood collector
that’ll carry the virus but won’t get sick
like a horseshoe bat or a blacklegged tick

 the virus itself is teeny tiny
globoid and spiny
really – just about as small as you like
120nanometers spike to spike
with a strand of coded RNA
safely coiled away
in a protein envelope
that’ll get posted down the slope
of your upper respiratory tract
especially given the lack
of basic PPE
–  something we see
in the UK today


Please address any further questions
to Michael Covid or Virus Johnson



It’s the end of the day. The window by the coordinator’s desk is all the way open, and a sultry breeze drifts in off the corrugated metal roofing of the document storage shed next door. I’ve been helping the coordinator through most of the afternoon, answering the phone, processing referrals, sorting out problems. It’s had its manic moments, as it always does, but mostly it’s been eerily quiet. I’ve heard the phrase ‘the calm before the storm’ a few times now. It almost makes me want the storm to come, just to get it over with. I don’t think I’m alone in that.

Ethan, one of the senior nurses, has come back to the office after sending his last patient back into hospital.
‘They’re shoving everyone out, regardless,’ he says. ‘I know they’re supposed to clear the decks for the C19s, but seriously? I wouldn’t be surprised to see a whole herd of them wandering along the prom pushing drip stands.’

Ethan has a fantastic way of saying these things, raising his eyebrows, staring at you for a second with wide eyes, then dropping his jaw, rocking back in the chair and laughing energetically. He’s an experienced nurse, with a background in so many areas of acute medicine – sexual health clinics, A and E, ITU and so on – he’s definitely earned his stripes. He’s a great person to talk to about the pandemic, because as well as all his knowledge and experience and great love of nursing, he has an impish sense of fun that leavens the seriousness of the whole affair and makes it less overwhelming.

So, of course, after a little while talking about the strange businesses of viruses, whether they’re living things or not, the alien way they’ve evolved alongside mammals, we soon move on to some of the other weird organisms he’s come across.

‘The Sexual Health Clinic was good for that,’ he says, one leg crooked over the other, idly tracing the arched line of his eyebrow with a fingernail. ‘I saw some weird things there, I can tell you. There’s one called Trichomonas vaginalis. It’s this ‘orrible little protozoan parasite that lives in the vaginal tract or the urethra. Men can get it but it’s mostly women. Anyway, it’s a disgusting little thing. Shaped like a pear with these flagella whipping about. Lives on scraps of dead cells, causing infection. I saw one under the microscope. It looked happy enough, swimming around on the slide. I think it actually saw me.’ And holding on to the back of the chair with one hand, he suddenly tips back, sticks his legs out and kicks them like he’s doing the backstroke at the pool, waving up at himself looking down through the lens of the microscope. ‘Coo ee!’ he says. Then he straightens again. ‘We had one woman come in. She said she knew she had a dose and had been trying to cure herself.’
‘I hate to ask – but – how?’
‘She’d been rubbing her fanny with raw hamburger. You know – to tempt them out. To tempt them out!
He stares at me for a second, then laughs.
‘It’s true, though!’ he screams. ‘Honest to God! I’m laughing, but it’s true!’

know your enemy

Viruses are biochemical malware / you can download from a table or the back of a chair / a sandwich wrapper or an item of footwear / a shopping trolley / the handle of a brolly / a volley / ball / the lightswitch in the hall … / basically, anything anyone’s touched at all / not to mention from a cough or a sneeze / where the virus spreads with comparative ease / in the old-fashioned, pneumo-plaguey-way / deadly and direct as an aerosol spray / from a can marked Quik-Infect / with a list of all the side effects / a hotline number for questions to ask / and a picture of a skull in a surgical mask

SARS-CoV-2 / (coronavirus to me and you) / is 120 nanometres spike to spike / and to give you an idea of what THAT looks like / you could put 650 from here to there / across the diameter of a human hair

The virus is built to hotwire cells / and utilise their organelles / knocking out bunches of viral clones / that eventually burst out like drones / to carry on the replication / in neighbouring host cell populations / surfing the ancient genetic wave / of all the poor organisms they invade

They’ve been around since Deuteronomy / rampaging through the world’s taxonomy / you find them in camels and mandarins / bats and cats and pangolins / and although a virus isn’t strictly alive / you’d have to admit it shows plenty of drive / constantly making adaptations / capsid hacks and alterations / endless genetic recombinations / and even though the thing’s inert / and depends on hosts to make it work / still, it thrives in its micro-domain / nestling spike-deep in a cell membrane / one more key in one more lock / one more twist on the evolutionary clock

But I didn’t want to leave you without some hope
The thing they really hate is soapIMG_1943

going viral

Is a virus a living organism?

A living organism is supposed to have the following seven characteristics: Movement, Sensitivity, Respiration, Growth, Reproduction, Excretion & Nutrition.

On the face of it, a virus seems to be more passive and more dependent than that. The only thing a virus does from the list is reproduce – but it needs a living host to do it. Does that mean you couldn’t describe it as ‘living’?

If you ignored the structural differences between the two things – between single or multi-cellular organisms and the viruses that infect them – wouldn’t it be true to say that they’re both driven to do the same thing, which is to make more of themselves? In such a way that responds to changes in the genetic environment, making them more resilient and more likely to thrive?

To put it another way, maybe it doesn’t matter how you get there, so long as you get there. And on those terms, maybe the virus could be seen as the more successful organism, living or non-living, because it’s managing to ‘get there’ with far less complication?

I’ve seen viruses described as ‘organisms at the edge of life’ – which seems to acknowledge the extent of the problem apprehending these things. And virology as a science only dates from the beginning of the twentieth century, so there’s a long way to go.

None of which is helping with my cold. But as Sun Tzu once said: To know your Enemy, you must become your Enemy.

And if I was a virus, I’d definitely have that tattooed on my capsid.

latest poem

This one’s a riff on corporate culture, with a rap-style rhythm (which I suppose makes it a riff-rap). There’s no image with it, so I’ll just casually drop the link in here.


Thanks for reading!