My favorite microbe

This is the structure of rabies virus, very small yet very sophisticated.
Structure of the rabies virus


Depiction of a rabid dog
Depiction of a rabid dog

My favorite microbe has been plaguing the world for centuries. Scientists believe that it is the reason for werewolf and vampire mythology. This little virus is called rabies, and it is a bite you will not forget.

Why is this my favorite microbial agent? It is my favorite because no other agent has contributed to mythology and history like the rabies virus.

Rabies is a virus, and a mean virus at that. The exact origin of the virus in history is unknown, but tales dating back to Babylonian times give rise to rabid dogs and beasts.

Until Louis Pasteur developed a rabies vaccine in the late 1800s, rabies was the biggest fear of many people, because they did not know how it was transmitted or how to cure it.

Pasteur went literally into the jaws of the beast to test saliva from rabid dogs in his laboratory. He would have his associates hold down the rabid dogs while he reached into their mouths for large amounts of saliva. His technique gives a new meaning to the hands-on approach method.

How did Pasteur know that dogs were carriers when no one in history had thought about it before the 1800s? Dogs are beloved pets in today’s society, but they haven’t always been so well loved.

Dogs were the biggest carriers of the rabies virus in history because they exhibited all the classic symptoms of aggression, hydrophobia (fear of water) and extreme salivation (foaming at the mouth). Now dogs are vaccinated each year to prevent rabies.

Other mammals carried the virus, but few knew of their symptoms. The bat was not attributed to the rabies virus until the 16th century, and that is when rumors of vampires started to float around with bat-like origins.

Until a girl survived in the early 2000s, no one had ever (in documented cases) been shown to survive a rabies infection without vaccination. Human infection with the rabies virus is different from animal infections. The zoonotic transfer of rabies into humans is a stopping point for the virus.

How can such a small virion leave such a big bite? The answer is in the bite. The saliva is transmitted into the bloodstream during the bite. The rabies virus moves through the bloodstream until it reaches the target destination — the central nervous system.

Taking over the central nervous system is the equivalent of getting a computer virus. The central processing unit, or brain, cannot run properly when infected. The rabies virus lives in the peripheral nervous system, leading to a violent takedown.

Once again, how can such a violent agent be my favorite microbe? I was reading on the news last fall about the possibility of a zombie uprising. As I continued reading, this article detailed how the rabies virus could mutate, leading to a zombie apocalypse. That viewpoint is a little extreme, but it brings me to my final point.

As a future microbiologist, if microbial supremacy is wrong, I don’t want to be right. The rabies virus is responsible for creative thinking on a higher plane, and I fully support such thinking. It brings me job security.