Your body is being hijacked! You are no longer in control. Microscopic entities are flooding through your systems and using your cells against you! What is happening? How do you stop these foreign invaders? Well, it depends. Let’s take a step back and ask: what is attacking you? Is the pathogen a virus or bacteria? This single question could be the difference between life and death. There are ways to kill bacteria that will not kill a virus and vice versa. So, let us take a look at what the similarities and differences are between a virus and bacteria. Knowing the difference could save your life. Both bacteria and viruses are microscopic, meaning they are too small to see with the naked eye. They can enter your body through any opening, but most often they enter through the nose and mouth. Are bacteria and viruses living things? This is the first distinction between the two pathogens that we will make. Bacteria is most certainly alive.
To be classified as a living thing something must have five traits. The traits are: its made of cells, it grows and reproduces, it responds to stimuli in the environment, it can pass on genetic information, and it must maintain homeostasis or an internal balance. If just one of these characteristics is missing, it is not considered a living thing. Bacteria meet all the requirements. Bacteria are likely the most diverse kingdom of living things on the planet. There are billions of different species of bacteria.
Not only that, but there are also trillions of bacteria in your body right now! Bacteria in your body outnumber your cells by about ten to one! Think about how crazy that is. Just in sheer numbers, there are more bacteria in you than your cells. Biology is fascinating! This brings up a really good point though. If there are so many bacteria in you why aren’t you dead, or at least sick all of the time? Are Arent bacteria harmful to your body? For anyone who has had food poisoning caused by bacteria you wished you were dead at the time. Recently scientists have discovered that bacteria play an important role in making up your body’s microbiome. Bacteria are beneficial in many ways. They can help you digest foods and keep your skin healthy.
We have come to realize that bacteria make your life better. Without a healthy microbiome of bacteria in your body, you wouldn’t be able to eat certain foods and you’d become sick more often. We now know bacteria are living things. They are single-celled and have all of the characteristics of life. They are diverse and found everywhere around the world. Bacteria can be harmful, but they are also beneficial to your body. So are viruses the same way? The short answer is no. Viruses and bacteria have more differences than similarities. Let us start with what seems like a basic question. Are viruses alive? Well, it’s complicated. Depending on who you ask in the scientific community you will get a different answer. Viruses are in a grey area between living and nonliving things. For example, they cannot reproduce without hijacking the cells of a host. This means that they don’t have the characteristic of reproduction.
All other living things can reproduce without taking over another organism’s cells and using it for their purposes. Living things either find a mate and reproduce, like humans or split in two using a form of asexual reproduction like bacteria. Viruses cant do either of these things. Another characteristic of a living thing is that they respond to their environment. Viruses again are in a weird grey area where they don’t so much respond to their environment, as change it. Viruses change the genetic code of cells to suit their needs. They can cause cells to make copies of themselves, along with protein shells that carry them to new cells to infect. Viruses are tricky both in the way they use our cells against us and identifying if they are a living thing or not. Bacteria on the other hand will respond to their environment.
They will make more copies of themselves when resources are abundant or swap their genetic code with other bacteria around them if a beneficial trait arises that helps the species survive. Evolution by natural selection also is an important concept when discussing living things. All living things evolved from a species in the past. You, me, bacteria, we all evolved from an organism that started life on this planet billion of years ago. Granted, you and bacteria went through many different changes and evolutionary steps, but humans and bacteria both evolved from earlier species. This is just how life works on our planet. Viruses again blur the line here. Viruses most definitely do change over time. This is why you have to get a different flu shot every year. Although viruses are missing several characteristics of a living thing they do seem to evolve. And they seem to evolve fast.
Species evolve when a mutation in the DNA occurs that gives an organism a new trait. Mutations are random mistakes in the DNA, so some are good, some are bad, and some don’t have any effect on an organism’s survival at all. But with viruses, it would seem mutations happen so often, and so rapidly, that a new form of a virus can evolve almost overnight. Are bacteria living things? Yes, they are. Are viruses living things? Ahh, they straddle the line between living and nonliving. Us humans like to make things clear cut and binary. Either yes or no. Unfortunately, viruses don’t fit into one category or another, which can scare and frustrate us. We talked about the benefits of bacteria. But you may be wondering, do viruses give us any benefits? Or are they just little hijacking machines that make us sick? Well, one benefit of viruses is that weak or less harmful ones can help boost your immune system.
If you get the common cold, and it makes you a little sick, your body may develop resistance to a more malicious virus with a similar genetic makeup. In this case, your body would be better able to fight off the new virus thanks to the weaker virus you got earlier in your life. But let’s talk about one of the coolest benefits a virus can have for you. Let’s talk about bacteriophages. A bacteriophage is a virus that kills bacteria. It targets a specific type of bacteria, infiltrates it, takes over, and destroys it. It’s pretty awesome when you think about it. Like little microscopic warfare happening inside your body. Imagine you have a harmful bacteria multiplying away inside of you. It’s making you sick and causing a lot of distress. Then a virus that has been lying dormant in the mucus lining of your gastrointestinal tract awakes from its slumber.
The viruses start attacking the harmful bacteria by injecting them with their genetic code and taking over. Eventually, the bacteriophages kill all the harmful bacteria and are either evacuated from your system or lie dormant again waiting for their next victim. That is pretty cool stuff if you ask us. Bacteriophages are viruses that only kill bacteria, so they pose no threat to your cells. As of yet, we know of no bacteria that kill viruses, but countless different viruses can kill bacteria. There is one last aspect of viruses that makes them unique and different from bacteria. We promised that biology is fascinating and if we haven’t already delivered we are about to.
When viruses infect us and hijack our cells they can embed small chunks of their DNA into our DNA. Although this is rare it has been happening for millions of years. So, over time the viral DNA that has snuck into human DNA has accumulated. Your DNA right now is comprised of around ten percent virus DNA. Think about that. One-tenth of the genetic code that makes you you, is virus DNA! Like mutations, the chunks of viral DNA in our genome were inserted randomly. Some of it is harmful, such as viral DNA that can cause cancer. Other pieces of viral DNA have been beneficial to us humans over our evolutionary history. There is evidence that some of the virus DNA in our genome helped in the development of the human placenta.
Also, if you enjoy eating cereal, bread, or any other food high in starch, you can thank viruses for providing humans with the gene that allows us to digest the complex sugar. Viral DNA is responsible for creating starch digesting enzymes in our pancreas cells. Without virus DNA in our genome, we would all be on a starch free diet right now. Bacteria are beneficial to humans in a lot of ways. Most especially in shaping our microbiome and digestion of foods. However, only viruses can claim the honor of changing our DNA and influencing the course of human evolution. Have we mentioned how cool biology is yet? Now let’s talk about the differences in preventing or killing viruses and bacteria. The first and most important distinction to make when treating a pathogen is to identify if it is a virus or bacteria.
This is important because only certain medicines work for certain types of pathogens. Antibiotics are used to kill bacteria. Antibiotics will only kill bacteria. Hence the name anti meaning against and biotic meaning living. So antibiotics are only used to kill living things, in this case, bacteria. Since viruses are complicated and don’t reproduce using cellular division, antibiotics do not affect them. It is important that you can distinguish between viruses and bacteria to make informed decisions about medication being recommended for an illness. We know bacteria are living things. All living things are subject to the pressures of natural selection. When the environment of a bacteria changes, let’s say an antibiotic is introduced, the bacteria will be killed by it. That is unless a random mutation allows one bacteria to become resistant, and therefore, able to fight off the antibiotic.
If this happens that species of bacteria will keep on multiplying and could lead to severe illness or death. Antibiotic resistance is a process that is driven by natural selection. The bacteria can evolve in your body to become resistant to antibiotics. This is why it is so important to take the correct dosage, for the correct amount of time, when prescribed antibiotics by your doctor. Even if you stop showing symptoms you must complete your antibiotic regimen, because if you don’t, the bacteria you were trying to kill are more likely to develop resistance to that antibiotic. We see this in certain parts of the world with Tuberculosis. Like we’ve said, living things tend to evolve, otherwise, that species would go extinct. Bacteria are no exception. So if antibiotics only kill bacteria how do we kill viruses? There are two types of medicines that doctors use.
The first is an antiviral medication. The drugs must be administered within a certain time frame, and are only effective while the medicine is in the patient’s system. When you travel to areas of the world with yellow fever, you can take an antiviral yellow fever drug. You have to take the pills as prescribed by the doctor, before and during your trip, for the drug to be effective. The antiviral uses chemicals that kill the virus, but only if those chemicals are in your system when the virus infiltrates your body. Vaccines can be used to prevent or kill both a virus or bacteria. Every vaccine is different and made to kill one type of pathogen. Vaccines typically use a weakened or dead form of the pathogen to activate the immune system.
When the weakened or dead pathogen enters your body your immune system identifies it and makes antibodies that mark it for destruction. After your immune system comes in contact with the vaccine it will remember what the virus or bacteria looked like, so if you ever are infected with the actual pathogen your body already has immunity to. Then your immune system will do what it does best and destroy the pathogen before it can make you sick. Vaccines work the same way against bacteria and viruses. We have learned a lot over the years about viruses and bacteria. We know they have some similarities but are different in many ways. It is thanks to scientists and doctors that we know so much and can protect ourselves from harmful pathogens like bacteria and viruses.
It is also thanks to scientists and doctors that we understand the importance bacteria and viruses can play in human evolution and health. What it comes down to is that biology is cool and scientists are awesome. That is why when scientists and doctors recommend certain precautions to prevent a disease, we should all listen. If you are team virus then check out our video Why Spanish Flu Killed Over 50 Million People – Deadliest Plague in Modern History. If you are team bacteria check out Why Would a Scientist Inject Himself with 3.5 Million Year.