Is There an Upside to Viruses?

It’s time we got in on the conversation, the one that’s happening inside of our bodies. If we better understood the surprising science of how very different cells—bacteria, brain cells, blood cells, gut cells—and viruses all speak to each other, we might better grasp the inner workings of COVID-19 and other life threatening diseases. We might also learn how healing happens.

Everyone is much more aware of viruses now because of COVID-19 and want to understand what they are and how they work. Like all areas of biology and medicine it is related to the new science of cellular communication.

Viruses are the most prevalent life form on the earth. Recent research shows that viruses communicate among themselves in determining their behavior, using signal molecules like cells. In my book, I describe the increasing understanding of these varied signals and the very elaborate lifestyles of several important viruses, such as COVID-19, HIV, Ebola, and Herpes. Because of their abilities to make decisions, as well as evade and counter elaborate attacks by our much more complex cells, when considering viruses, the entire definition of life must be updated.

A lot has been learned about virus signals and behavior over years of research, but each type of virus can be quite different. With COVID-19, scientists have just begun to describe its genes, proteins, and behaviors.  It will take much more time to find their communication strategies and then use these signals to help us fight the pandemic.


The idea of cellular communication is a really simple idea, but hasn’t been clearly explained before. Even though bacteria are a thousand times smaller and less complex than human cells, they speak the same language as our cells. Because of this, microbes can influence human cells by intercepting cellular conversations in the human body that are important for health. It also shows how fungus, plants, bacteria, viruses, and human cells all constantly influence each other.

It is not widely known that viruses are the most prevalent life form on earth and can also be very helpful to humans. Active viruses inside our guts defend the microbes that have been chosen as friends and guardians of the gut lining cells. These viruses attack invading dangerous bacteria and give toxins to the friendly bacteria for their battles. Recently, viruses have been used as treatments, such as directly fighting cancers and as vectors to inject new genes into cells to cure the genetic disease hemophilia.

Very surprisingly, a significant amount of the DNA in each of our cells is from ancient embedded viruses. Embedded virus genes copy themselves and place slightly altered versions throughout our cell’s DNA. These multiple altered genes are active and produce signal molecules, such as proteins and RNA particles, that are very important in our daily functions. One of these proteins allows for the human placenta to develop and another produces the vital digestive enzyme amylase from the salivary gland. Other embedded virus genes are critical to brain function, the developing embryo, and stem cells throughout the body. These virus genes also help to fight infections from other viruses.  More than 100 diseases come from the products of these virus genes embedded in our cells.

The more we learn about our relationships with ever present viruses, the sooner we will be able to learn to live with them and combat pandemics.

Jon Lieff, MD, brings to bear 40 years as a nationally recognized neuro-psychiatrist, during which he was president of a national medical subspecialty organization, founded a major scientific journal, and was the medical director for 25 years of a large network of psychiatric care for the elderly. He was a pioneer in several medical fields—geriatric psychiatry, brain injury, computer applications in psychiatry, and the integration of medicine, psychiatry, and neurology.

Starting with an interest in brain cell communication, Dr. Lieff found similar signaling among all cells in nature. Five years ago, he established his acclaimed and popular scientific website, Searching for the Mind, about the topic of cellular communication. With weekly posts, he reviewed and synthesized the latest scientific literature in neuroscience and cell biology.

The Secret Language of Cells: What Biological Conversations Tell Us About the Brain-Body Connection, the Future of Medicine, and Life Itself

John Lieff, MD

Hardcover: 320 pages

Publisher: BenBella Books (September 22, 2020)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 1948836041

ISBN-13: 978-1948836043

Product Dimensions: 6 x 9 inches


September 22, 2020

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