Biomimicry can be used to decrease or prevent the impact of future outbreaks of viral diseases, says Augustana biology professor

Professor Tomislav Terzin reflects on the anatomy of a virus and how we can use biomimicry to learn from living nature and apply the best solutions to human society to prevent or lessen the spread of future disease.

Tia Lalani - 20 April 2020

By Tomislav Terzin

Professor Terzin presenting at the opening of the Living Colours biomimicry library exhibit at Augustana earlier in the year. We can use the tenants of biomimicry to create a safer future, especially in the context of pandemics, says Terzin. (Photo credit: Bojan Kumovic)

As a biologist who is also a member of the advisory board of Biomimicry Alberta, I feel called to share some words about the present situation, as well as some general ideas based on what we may learn from nature to decrease or prevent the impact of future outbreaks of viral diseases.

What is a virus? The literal translation from Latin means "poison". For a long time, it was known that some infectious diseases were caused by invisible agents. Viruses are too small to be seen under a light microscope-it was the invention of the electron microscope has allowed us to see them. There is no consensus among scientists on whether viruses are living beings or not-it is evident that all viruses have some sort of genetic material DNA or RNA (COVID19 is an RNA virus), however, viral genetic material is incapable of reproduction unless it penetrates a living cell and uses the molecular machinery of a living cell to reproduce. In a sense, viruses are obligatory molecular parasites. Not having a metabolism of their own, and not being able to reproduce without help, many scientists take the position that viruses are at the border between living and non-living nature. They can influence living cells to produce more viruses, but they are not alive by themselves. Although there are several hypotheses on the origin of viruses, none of them can be scientifically proven at this time. Simply, we don't know how viruses came to be. What we know is that today, science can modify natural viruses and even design new ones. With that being said, there is no scientific evidence for the artificial origin of COVID19-the infection is here and the most important thing we can do is fight it.

Every virus has specific genetic material, either DNA or RNA, and we can create specific tests for detection and early diagnostics. These tests are based on PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) technology that is used to rapidly amplify genes in a test tube within 2-3 hours and identify the presence or absence of a virus within the sample. In order for this technology to work, the DNA or RNA sequence of a particular virus have to be known and using this technique, DNA probes or primers are synthesized artificially. These probes recognize viral genetic material in the sample and specifically amplify only the viral sequence. The specificity of viral genetic material allows for the specificity of the test, however, the primers must be designed in a way to prevent non-specific amplification which would recognize more than one viral species and result in a false-positive outcome of the test. The number of false-positive results also depends on the quality of training and the conditions within each laboratory that performs these tests, since cross-contamination is generally the main problem. PCR is an extremely sensitive technology and cross-contamination of the sample with just a single molecule can result in the amplification of DNA and false-positive result. Due to the urgency of the situation, there is not much transparency on how specific the tests for COVID-19 are and what the ratio of false-positive and false-negative results is.

What can biomimicry offer for the safer future of humankind? Biomimicry could, in the broadest term, be defined as a field of innovative intellectual activity that brings together science, technology, design and art, based on learning from living nature and applying the best solutions to human society.

  1. In nature, most species live in complex communities called ecosystems, in which there are many species. But the density of each species within the space is relatively low, which is one mechanism that helps prevents pandemic spread of diseases in nature. It is obvious that the largest centres of infective disease spread are large overcrowded cities. One option to combat this spread would be for people to redesign our way of life to live in decentralized self-sustainable small cities and towns.
  2. In nature, each organism takes care of their own food supply. Animals do not go to shopping malls to get their food, and neither did our ancestors a couple of centuries ago. As much as possible, all local communities should produce food to prevent supply problems resulting from economical instability and transportation disruption.
  3. There is scientific evidence from the past that several animal viruses passed the interspecies barrier and affected humankind through human to human spread. To prevent this, people could reduce consumption of animal-based foods, particularly food that is mass-produced on a large scale. Reducing the presence of pets in highly urban environments would also contribute to this solution.
  4. In nature, the strongest and healthiest members of the species survive. We should live healthy lives with lots of physical activity, low stress, good rest, healthy plant-based nutrition and foods low in animal proteins and sugar to keep our natural immunity high so that we are ready to fight infections.

I would like to reinforce that I am not a virologist nor a medical scientist. My training is in the field of molecular genetics and developmental biology. As such, the views that I share are my opinion, but an opinion based on my professional knowledge and following general scientific principles of observation and experimentation.

This article was originally published in Biomimicry Alberta on April 6, 2020.