Hacked: the human edition

By Natalie Hamer, Newcastle University

In today’s western society, almost every individual owns a piece of technology. Be that a mobile phone, a tablet or a computer; technology has become so integrated into our lives that we use it daily to complete simple tasks such as communicating, banking and even shopping. The more we depend on technology, the more criminals will try to exploit this dependency to steal our private information for gain. As technology advances and our cyber security measures improve, so too do the methods employed by these so-called ‘hackers’ to breech our defences and exploit the weaknesses in our systems. Although this may seem like a very modern issue, hacking has actually been around for billions of years.

Code Image
Computer coding. Photo by Joffi, Source: Pixabay.

The Scourge of Life

Viruses have plagued man-kind for as long as we can remember. From the common cold to HIV, our cells have been at the mercy of the viruses trying to invade and hijack them for thousands of years. As well as humans, viruses infect all branches of life including plants, animals and micro-organisms; all of which can be referred to as the host. Over the course of your life, it is likely that you will host many viral infections. Some will come and go with only minor symptoms, such as the common cold (a.k.a rhinovirus), whereas others will linger and make repeat appearances like the herpes simplex virus, well-known for causing recurring cold sores. But what exactly is a virus?

Viral Particles
High resolution viral particles in a green dye. Photo by Qimono, Source: Pixabay.

The Original Malware

Viruses are small, infectious organisms defined as ‘obligate intracellular pathogens’. This means that they are harmful organisms (pathogens) that can’t survive or reproduce without the aid of a host cell (obligate intracellular). In other words, in order to create more virus particles and infect more people, viruses need to hijack or hack our body’s own cells and use them as a captive virus factories. Before they can do this, a virus must first gain access to our bodies, evade our immune system and take over a cell. Similar to the tools used by computer hackers today, viruses have evolved many different techniques to beat our body’s natural defences and re-programme the cells that they infect.

Much like the fire wall on your computer scans for malware, the cells of your immune system continually survey your body for any foreign invaders. Upon finding one, they alert other cells and begin to launch a counter attack. One way for a virus to prevent this attack is to lie dormant in the body becoming virtually undetectable to the immune system in a similar fashion to which malware can lie dormant within your computer. Alternatively, a virus could mimic the molecules your body recognises as ‘self’ which switch off the immune response to prevent your body from attacking itself. Although these are just a few of the ways in which a virus could evade the host’s immune system, as with any system, as our defences become more sophisticated, the invading viruses will also evolve new and more complex evasive techniques.

Coding 101

Once inside a host cell, the virus then reprogrammes the cell to prevent its usual activity and prioritise viral reproduction. This recoding may also prevent the cell from signalling out to warn other cells of the infection. Using the machinery inside of the cell, the virus can then produce more copies of itself and use the cell to assemble them into infectious viral particles. This process, along with the termination of the cell’s normal activities, often damages the cell leading to cell rupture. When it does so, the newly made virus particles are released and can spread to other cells in the body or even other hosts in a similar way that a phishing email may forward itself on to your other contacts.

The techniques described above are examples of just some of the ways in which viruses hack our bodies. But just as there many different types of malware, there are also many different types of virus each with very diverse methods of invading their host. Regardless, it is clear that there are numerous parallels to be drawn between the methods utilised by modern day computer hackers and those found in nature’s original hacker – the virus. So although computer viruses may be considered by most as a problem of the 21st century, their name-sake actually mastered the art of hacking a few billion years earlier.

HeadshotAbout me

I am a third year biomedical sciences undergraduate at Newcastle University. I’m currently returning to university after an Industrial Placement year in the Immuno-Inflammation unit at GlaxoSmithKline. This is my first article for The Biochemist Blog but I’ve previously written for the British Society for Gene and Cell Therapy Blogs and I also write my own blog, SciShot, covering a wide range of life science topics. You can also follow me on Twitter @SciShot.

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