Sentence patterns, word order, logic . . . what’s grammar got to do with viruses? New research says there may be a link. Scientists are using lessons from written language to learn about human diseases.
Viruses are tiny organisms. They’re not alive by scientific definitions, so viruses need a living host like a plant, animal, or human in which to reproduce. Inside a host, viruses can cause diseases like the common cold, the flu, chicken pox, polio, or COVID-19—among many others.
When a virus invades a host, it harnesses the power of the host’s cells. It copies itself over and over. Eventually, mutations (or changes) occur in the copies. Most of the time, mutations don’t affect the virus. But sometimes they make it more (or less!) dangerous to the host.
Thankfully, God-made immune systems protect against most viruses. But sometimes a virus mutates just enough to escape detection by the ever-watchful immune system. When this happens, infection sets in.
Scientists call this mutation-infection mechanism “viral escape.” The goal of much vaccine research is to predict viral escape—and catch harmful mutant viruses before they do damage.
A recent breakthrough in viral escape research came from a surprising sphere. Biologist Brian Hie knew that viruses follow a set of rules. He began thinking of the rules like grammar rules. When mutations break the rules, a virus stops thriving.
Hie also knew that grammar is only part of writing. Logic is also vital. Hie wondered whether some sneaky mutants “kept the grammar rules” but made logic errors.
Consider the following sentence: The pillow kicked the ball into the bushes. The grammar is correct, but readers know that pillows can’t kick. The word pillow is an error in logic.
Hie wanted to test his theory: Do escaping mutant viruses follow the grammar rules but reveal poor logic?
Last spring, researchers applied algorithms used for studying human language to viral escape. (To read about AI problems with language, read AI Poems Lack Verbal Magic.)
According to Hie’s research published in Science, viral escape caused viruses “to look different”—much like “word changes that preserve a sentence’s [grammar] but change its meaning.”
Researchers now wonder whether language rules could apply in other situations. Could the rules predict whether vaccines will stop working? Or how a cancer escapes the body’s natural defenses?
Connecting seemingly unrelated fields to solve problems is ground-breaking. Hie believes further study of the language analogy could yield more insights. Hie’s grammar-virus work seems to be just beginning.