Viruses have basically two mechanisms for invading 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 their 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 even in the absence of the lytic enzymes mentioned above. It is an extremely effective way for the viral particles to disperse themselves over a large distance.
I was reminded of all this when I saw the first report of a human burster. Burster was the name given to the new (at the time) 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 25 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 at the Jake. 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 blood, bile, viscera and various organ and body parts. 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, and the origin was near the center of the body, the stomach or intestines most likely. 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 in the lytic infection pathway, 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, bacterial, or protozoan 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.
No causative agent(s) identified, no pattern(s) to the victims found, no alien influence detected, no clue what was happening. Many religiously minded people spoke of the bursting as “God’s punishment” for our sinful ways, and in truth many of them seemed to think it was deserved and frankly weren’t all that bothered by it. For them, it was only the sinful who had anything to fear for God would protect them if they could remain free from sin. But for the secular the lack of an explanation was frustrating and terrifying in equal measure. The people of earth were in a state of panic, confusion, and disbelief. Fortunately the rate of bursts seemed fairly stable, between 100–250 bursts/day globally. Of course these numbers were impossible to verify precisely as who could say if some unknown tribesmen in a remote jungle of South America had suddenly blown to bits on any given day or not. In general, however 250 was thought to be the maximum, and daily burst counts on television and the internet kept a running total visible at all times. Each time the counter got anywhere near 250 the intensity of fear would increase and mini panics would ensue. Many people believed if we once exceeded that number it would mean that bursting was now spreading and the rate was destined to continue to increase exponentially.
The thing you need to understand is that 250 deaths a day globally, while it sounds like a big deal, is but a drop in the bucket compared to the total number of deaths that occur from other causes. To give some examples in 2016 (year 4 since the first burst in 2012 at the aforementioned baseball game) 17.65 million people died of cardiovascular disease, that is a rate of close to 50,000 people/day, for cancers it was 8.93 million deaths, or a rate of approximately 25,000 people/day. Bursting, on the other hand barely cracked the top 30 causes of death globally and ranked just above heat related deaths but just below global conflicts as a cause of death in 2016. Of course, the 250 number only accounts for those unfortunate few who were directly effected (i.e. the people who blew up), and if we take into account the number of indirect or secondary deaths as a result of bursting the numbers increase somewhat, though not by as much as you might suspect. If you think about secondary effects for a moment, how exactly was death by burst any different then dying of a heart attack in terms of potential collaborator damage? A bus driver having a heart attack and running off the road killing all his passengers with him is the same outcome as if that bus driver had exploded and then run off the road, etc. The what if scenario became a favorite past time for many. Friends and families would sit around the dinner table and imagine all manner of possible catastrophes that might occur. What if the pilot of the 747 jet flying me to Florida for my yearly Disney vacation suddenly bursts? What if instead it is a military pilot flying a load of nuclear weapons on a training mission? What if it the operator at the local nuclear power plant? What if it is the president of the United States?, etc. On the other hand if one simply substituted heart attack or stroke or any other natural cause of sudden, instant death for a burst the outcomes mostly turned out to be the same (at least the imagined outcomes)
And, the bottom line was that despite the horrific and random nature of the burst it would have virtually no impact on the earth’s population long term and, in fact, given our planet’s current and continuously accelerating birth rate it could essentially be ignored as a factor in helping to stabilize that rate. Of course these cold, hard, statistical facts about bursting did very little to soothe people’s fears about it and mini panics continued to ensue each time a burst happened, at least for a few years. It is odd because if you really stopped to think about it, maybe bursting wasn’t all that terrible a way to go? I mean would you rather die a slow death by torture or racked with the pain of debilitating disease or simply one day walk outside and explode. You would never see it coming, it would definitely leave an impression such that you would not soon be forgotten, and it would be very quick, and most likely relatively painless.
Eventually people did start to think along those lines I guess as over time the panics stopped when a burst happened. It took roughly 15 years from the first burst until the people of earth mostly came to accept bursting as just one more thing, in the long list of things, that might kill them. Global conflict began to spread again, old hatreds were re-ignited and the countries and peoples that had come together out of fear now split apart again for the same reason, and old reasons, and new reasons, and no reason. Things slowly returned to “normal”. Life went on. Sure you might suddenly explode violently from the inside out at any moment, but for that moment you were still alive, and you were still human, and until that day you were going to live as you always had, bursting be damned.