Q. They are the most abundant organisms on Earth, by one estimate over a million times more than the stars in the universe, says “New Scientist” magazine. They don’t grow, communicate or move on their own, and without a home, they remain inert. Researchers know very little about them, except that they will start reproducing when they enter a suitable environment. Do you know what they are?
A. They are viruses, and they’re found just about everywhere, from oceans and forests to every person on the planet, reports the magazine’s Jonathan Goodman. Though they cause some of the most dangerous diseases – smallpox, AIDS, Ebola, flu – they also “play a key role in evolution and may well have been crucial for the origins of life.”
“In very hot environments, viruses tend to die quickly, which is why heating is an effective way to kill them. … In colder temperatures, viruses can survive for months or even years before successfully infecting a host.” Once inside a cell, the virus “hijacks the biological machinery it lacks and uses it to copy its genetic material.” Viruses replicate rapidly, and within days they may be in all of the host’s cells, for ill or good. One group that helps keep humans well by killing disease-causing bacteria is called bacteriophages, and researchers are beginning to use them to treat bacterial infections.
As to how many types of viruses there are, researchers have only the vaguest idea. But stay tuned as they try to map the incredibly complex world of the virosphere.
Q. An English sentence can have some curious twists and turns, including postpositives such as “ad litum,” “aforethought,” “errant,” “immemorial” and “laureate.” What is a “postpositive” and can you define these examples?
A. “Unlike a preposition, which goes before a word, a postpositive goes after,” explains Anu Garg on his “A.Word.A.Day” website. Consider, for example, “guardian ad litum.” “Ad litem,” from Latin “ad” (toward) and “litigare” (to go to law), is a person appointed by a court to represent someone, such as a child, considered incapable of representing herself in a lawsuit. “Aforethought,” in the phrase “malice aforethought,” is “planned or premeditated; not by accident.” For “errant,” there are two meanings: “traveling, especially for adventure”; and “erring, straying, or moving aimlessly.” But only the first is used postpositively, as in “knight-errant.”
Next, “immemorial” means “very old; beyond memory or recorded history.” Earliest documented use is 1593, decidedly not “since time immemorial.” Finally, “laureate” comes from an ancient Greek tradition of crowning people with a wreath of laurel sprigs to honor them. Thus, a “poet laureate” describes a person honored for achieving distinction in the field of poetry.
Q. If you’re in south Florida during a particularly cold spell, what creature might end up falling from the sky?
A. Iguanas are cold-blooded herbivores that find south Florida quite hospitable with its warm temperatures and plentiful trees, says Dan Lewis on his “Now I Know” website. However, “at temperatures in the low 40s, the iguanas freeze, and now more ice pop than lizard, they tend to fall out of their trees.” But, reports the National Weather Service, they’re only in “a cold-induced stasis-like state,” in effect, hibernating. Once temperatures rise, the iguanas warm up and come back to life.
So, what do you do when an iguana falls from the sky? Simply do nothing, Lewis answers. Even picking up a frozen iguana is a bad idea. It could become frightened as it warms, and per the “Washington Post,” “like any wild animal, it will try to defend itself.” As Lewis advises: “It may be a good idea to keep your head up if you’re walking under trees on a cold Florida day.”