BioQuakes

AP Biology class blog for discussing current research in Biology

Author: marinebiolojohn

Mutation in the Nation

We constantly think of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, as a single virus, one enemy that we all need to work together to fight against. However, the reality of the situation is the SARS-CoV-2, like many other viruses, is constantly mutating. Throughout the last year, over 100,000 SARS-CoV-2 genomes have been studied by scientists around the globe. And while when we hear the word mutation, we imagine a major change to how an organism functions, a mutation is just a change in the genome. The changes normally change little to nothing about how the actual virus functions. While the changes are happening all the time since the virus is always replicating, two viruses from anywhere in the world normally only differ by 10 letters in the genome. This means that the virus we called SARS-CoV-2 is not actually one species, but is a quasi-species of several different genetic variants of the original Wuhan-1 genome.

The most notable mutation that has occurred in SARS-CoV-2 swapped a single amino acid in the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. This caused SARS-CoV-2 to become significantly more infective, but not more severe. It has caused the R0 of the virus, the number of people an infected person will spread to, to go up. This value is a key number in determining how many people will be infected during an outbreak, and what measures must be taken to mitigate the spread. This mutation is now found in 80% of SARS-CoV-2 genomes, making it the most common mutation in every infection.

Glycoproteins are proteins that have an oligosaccharide chain connect to them. They serve a number of purposes in a wide variety of organisms, one of the main ones being the ability to identify cells of the same organism.  The spike protein is a glycoprotein that is found on the phospholipid bilayer of SARS-CoV-2 and it is the main tool utilized in infecting the body. The spike protein is used to bind to host cells, so the bilayers of the virus fuse with the cell, injecting the virus’s genetic material into the cell. This is why a mutation that makes the spike protein more efficient in binding to host cells can be so detrimental to stopping the virus.

In my opinion, I find mutations to be fascinating and terrifying. The idea that the change of one letter in the sequence of 30,000 letters in the SARS-CoV-2 genome can have a drastic effect on how the virus works is awfully daunting. However, SARS-CoV-2 is mutating fairly slowly in comparison to other viruses, and with vaccines rolling out, these mutations start to seem much less scary by the day.

 

A Friendzyme of the Environment

A team of researchers at the University of Portsmouth in England have engineered an enzyme that breaks down plastic six times faster than the previous most efficient plastic destroying enzyme. This enzyme specializes in breaking down PET, polyethylene terephthalate, the material most plastic bottles are made of. They created this by reengineering the previous enzyme, PETase, and combining it with another enzyme, MHETase, to create a ‘super enzyme’. They used a method normally utilized by companies in the biofuel industry, who combine enzymes to break down types of cellulase. Granted, it is still far too slow to be effective in breaking down the vast amounts of plastic waste we are faced with, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.

Enzymes are made of proteins which are made up of amino acids. Amino acids consist of a carboxyl group, an amino group, and a unique R group. Amino acids create chains in which carboxyl group match with amino groups, linking together using covalent peptide bonds, formed after dehydration synthesis. The chains of amino acids begin to fold and create proteins, which are the basis of almost all enzymes.

I think this issue is an important endeavor that should be funded by governments all around the world. We all share the Earth, and it is currently under threat by a number of issues, a prime example being pollution. Up to 8.8 million metric tons of plastic waste may enter the oceans every year. Some studies put the amount of seabirds that contain some form of plastic waste in their system at upwards of 90%. Plastic waste needs solutions before it makes the oceans uninhabitable for more creatures, and a mass produced enzyme may be a valid solution. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a large convergence of currents in the Pacific Ocean that has collected so much garbage, a large portion of which is made of plastic, that it is comparable to the size of Texas. Developing an effective enzyme that could quickly break down plastic could become a serious help to minimizing the environmental impact of the Garbage Patch.

While we cannot develop enzymes ourselves, several tips for mitigating our plastic waste are:

-Try to use aluminum cans instead of plastic bottles.

-Always recycle or reuse plastic bottles.

-Cut the holes of six pack rings before disposing so animals cannot be caught in them.

-Use metal and paper straws as a substitute for plastic straws.

 

File:PETase active site.png - Wikimedia Commons

^ The enzyme PETase 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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