Viruses have basically two mechanisms for attacking and propagating from a host cell, the so-called lytic and lysogenic pathways. In the lytic cycle viral DNA enters the host cell from the outside, binding to receptors on the cell surface then injecting its DNA in the host where it transcribes itself into the host’s mRNAs. The host cell’s DNA is eventually destroyed and the virus hijacks the cells metabolic activity using the cell’s energy for its own replication. Progeny phage are replicated rapidly. As the cell fills with new virus it becomes overcrowded, enzymes are released to break the cell wall and the host busts open spreading new phage particles which can then infect more cells. In contrast, lysogenic phage integrate their viral DNA or RNA into the host’s DNA as a new set of genes called prophage. Essentially the viral DNA becomes a part of the host’s genetic material. No progeny phage particles are produced. Instead as the host replicates the integrated phage genetic material is replicated as well. It may alter some of the cell’s characteristics but it does not destroy it. There are no viral symptoms in the lysogenic cycle, but the viral DNA or RNA may remain there permanently. However, if the prophage undergoes any stress or is exposed to UV radiation the lysogenic cycle can switch to the lytic with the results as described above. Sometimes if the difference in osmotic pressure between the interior of the cell and its external environment is large enough the cell will actually burst open quite violently. It is an extremely effective way for the viral particles to disperse themselves over a large distance. I was reminded of this when I saw the first report of a human burster. Burster was the name given to the recent phenomena of people suddenly exploding for no apparent reason. It is an extremely gory way to die. The violence of the explosion is such that blood, gore, and body parts have been found up to 15 meters away from the site of a burst.
The first burst occurred on live television. It was at a baseball game. As I recall it was the Detroit Tigers vs. the Cleveland Indians. Late in the fourth inning a man seated approximately five rows back, directly behind home plate stood up, appeared to belch and then exploded. Fans in the general vicinity and even the batter, catcher, and home plate umpire were covered in gore and blood. The poor victim’s foot ended up halfway down the first base line. Strangely enough his head fell right back down in his seat relatively intact, eyes wide open and mouth agape. Chaos ensued. Most persons immediately assumed it was some sort of terrorist attack. Ten people were crushed to death as everyone rushed to the exits. One older gentleman died of a heart attack at the scene. In the months after the first burst hundreds then thousands then tens of thousands more reports of bursting came in from all sections of the globe. Scientists were mystified. No discernible symptoms preceded a burst with the exception of the belch which was documented in almost every case. The dispersal pattern of the blood and guts were unequivocal in signaling that the bursters were exploding from the inside out. Suffice to say persons suffering from gas and those in their vicinity had an extremely high level of stress from this. Rather than an occasion for laughter and ridicule burping became a feared phenomenon. Several cases of persons fainting or suffering heart attacks or going into shock immediately after a belch were reported.
The United Nations issued a resolution calling on all countries to set aside their differences and work together to find and eliminate the cause of bursting. The resolution passed unanimously and for the first time in ages all wars and conflicts on the earth came to a halt. After all who had the stomach for fighting when your best friend, sibling, spouse, or even you could explode for no apparent reason at any moment? The entire planet was galvanized into action. A single purpose is a powerful unifying thing. Ancient enemies became friends as all people recognized the need to come together to fight this horrifying epidemic.
Many theories were put forth. Some believed the bursting had to be the result of an alien interference or attack on our planet. Others postulated that micro localized changes in atmospheric pressure were to blame. As a research microbiologist I of course immediately seized on the idea of an infection gone horribly wrong. It was much like the way a virus causes a cell to burst but amplified to the level of an entire being. Bacteria are also known to produce gas as they replicate. Dead beached whales and even exhumed humans exploding from the built up pressure of countless bacteria growing and replicating were well known and definitively documented. However, when the burster’s remains were analyzed no unusual microbiological activity, viral or bacterial, was found. Every conceivable epidemiological, statistical, and mathematical model was applied to the problem. All gave the same answer, the bursts were random. No geographic, genetic, racial, age, or sexual pattern to the bursts could be found. All persons seemed equally likely to be affected or not.