Molecular biologists went on to crystallize most of the essential components of cells and are today accustomed to thinking about cellular constituents—for example, ribosomes, mitochondria, membranes, DNA and proteins—as either chemical machinery or the stuff that the machinery uses or produces. This exposure to multiple complex chemical structures that carry out the processes of life is probably a reason that most molecular biologists do not spend a lot of time puzzling over whether viruses are alive. For them, that exercise might seem equivalent to pondering whether those individual subcellular constituents are alive on their own. This myopic view allows them to see only how viruses co-opt cells or cause disease. The more sweeping question of viral contributions to the history of life on earth, which I will address shortly, remains for the most part unanswered and even unasked.
To Be or Not to Be
The seemingly simple question of whether or not viruses are alive, which my students often ask, has probably defi ed a simple answer all these years because it raises a fundamental issue: What exactly defi nes “life?” A precise scientifi c defi nition of life is an elusive thing, but most observers would agree that life includes certain qualities in addition to an ability to replicate. For example, a living entity is in a state bounded by birth and death. Living organisms also are thought to require a degree of biochemical autonomy, carrying on the metabolic activities that produce the molecules and energy needed to sustain the organism. This level of autonomy is essential to most definitions.
Viruses, however, parasitize essentially all biomolecular aspects of life. That is, they depend on the host cell for the raw materials and energy necessary for nucleic acid synthesis, protein synthesis, processing and transport, and all other biochemical activities that allow the virus to multiply and spread. One might then conclude that even though these processes come under viral direction, viruses are simply nonliving parasites of living metabolic systems. But a spectrum may exist between what is certainly alive and what is not.
A rock is not alive. A metabolically active sack, devoid of genetic material and the potential for propagation, is also not alive. A bacterium, though, is alive. Although it is a single cell, it can generate energy and the molecules needed to sustain itself, and it can reproduce. But what about a seed? A seed might not be considered alive. Yet it has a potential for life, and it may be destroyed. In this regard, viruses resemble seeds more than they do live cells. They have a certain potential, which can be snuffed out, but they do not attain the more autonomous state of life.
Another way to think about life is as an emergent property of a collection of certain nonliving things. Both life and consciousness are examples of emergent complex systems. They each require a critical level of complexity or interaction to achieve their respective states. A neuron by itself, or even in a network of nerves, is not conscious—whole brain complexity is needed. Yet even an intact human brain can be biologically alive but incapable of consciousness, or “brain-dead.” Similarly, neither cellular nor viral individual genes or proteins are by themselves alive. The enucleated cell is akin to the state of being braindead, in that it lacks a full critical complexity. A virus, too, fails to reach a critical complexity. So life itself is an emergent, complex state, but it is made from the same fundamental, physical building blocks that constitute a virus. Approached from this perspective, viruses, though not fully alive, may be thought of as being more than inert matter: they verge on life.