As I mentioned on the Twitters, when, upon my return from ScienceOnline 2012, my family members hit me with the question, "What did you get me?" they were thrilled that the answer included science-y watercolors by Michele Banks (who, by the way, has a show ongoing).
My favorite is this cute phage, not least because it prompted a conversation between the Free-Ride offspring.
Dr. Free-Ride: Isn't this cool?
Younger offspring: It looks like a bug with a balloon on its butt.
Elder offspring: No, it's a phage.
Younger offspring: What's a phage?
Elder offspring: It's a virus that eats bacteria.
Younger offspring: Aren't viruses and bacteria the same thing? Don't they both make you sick?
Dr. Free-Ride: Well, viruses and bacteria both fit in the category of "germs".
Younger offspring: Don't they both make you sick? Isn't bacteria the same level of bad as viruses? And why would a virus eat a bacteria? Wouldn't that make the virus sick?
Dr. Free-Ride: There are some bacteria that are totally benign that are probably living in your intestine right now, without which you would have a hard time getting all the vitamins you need, for example. So, there are some bacteria that actually do good work for you.
Younger offspring: Oh.
Dr. Free-Ride: But there are definitely other bacteria that can make you sick.
Elder offspring: Like E. coli for bladder infections.
Dr. Free-Ride: Yeah.
Younger offspring: TMI.*
Dr. Free-Ride: To be fair, some of the bacteria that are in you, doing fine without making your life miserable, are E. coli. It's particular strains of E. coli that can make you sick.
Younger offspring: Isn't it bacterium?
Dr. Free-Ride: Yes, bacterium is the singular, bacteria is the plural. So ... what's the difference between a bacterium and a virus?
Elder offspring: A virus isn't really living. The only thing that it does that is similar to living things is reproduce, and it doesn't do that by itself -- it needs a bacterium to reproduce.
Dr. Free-Ride: Say more about that. Is it like a photocopier, which reproduces but needs someone to push the button?
Younger offspring: Wait, if bacteria can help viruses reproduce, isn't that another way for bacteria to hurt us?
Elder offspring: It's not like the bacteria are doing it by choice!
Dr. Free-Ride: They are sort of being commandeered by the viruses, aren't they?
Elder offspring: Yeah. The viruses just attach on and then insert their genetic material.
Dr. Free-Ride: And say, "Hey, bacterium ..."
Elder offspring: "... do THIS instead of your normal life functions!"
Dr. Free-Ride: So, instead of your normal life functions, make more of the stuff that I've shot into you, which is basically virus-stuff?
Elder offspring: Yeah. And then when the bacterium gets too full of viruses? It goes BOOM! and all the viruses go find new homes.
Dr. Free-Ride: It explodes like an overheated spaghetti squash.**
Younger offspring: That wasn't really needed.
Dr. Free-Ride: Well, you know, sometimes it's good to have a mental image. OK, back to your claims that viruses aren't alive. Strictly speaking, we humans need other stuff in our environment to conduct our life functions. I'm always curious about how we decide where to draw the line between what counts as being a living thing and what doesn't. And I'll bet there are probably some people who think that viruses ought to be on the "living" side of the line rather than the "non-living" side. What's the justification for keeping viruses out of the club?
Elder offspring: They can't produce energy by themselves.
Dr. Free-Ride: Whereas you can? Didn't you recently have a conversation with an organelle that pointed out your shortcomings in this area?
Elder offspring: They can't produce energy by way of mitochondria or whatnot.
Dr. Free-Ride: Ohhh, so because we have mitochondria, we can lord it over the viruses? You think having mitochondria is a requirement for being alive?
Elder offspring: No, you just need to produce energy from something to be alive. Just reproducing yourself isn't enough. I'm pretty sure viruses don't get energy, they just reproduce.
Dr. Free-Ride: Wouldn't that suggest that they're even more advanced than us "living things" in that they don't need energy? I mean, they don't have to stop to eat. They're very nose to the grindstone, achieving the task at hand of making more of them.
Younger offspring: Except that viruses don't have noses.
Dr. Free-Ride: Think of how much more you could get done if you didn't have to stop to eat.
Elder offspring: But then I'd miss all the prettiful flavors.***
Dr. Free-Ride: For that matter, think of how many more of you there could be running around if you displayed the virus' seriousness of purpose about making more of you.
Elder offspring: Ewwww. No.
Dr. Free-Ride: No, not in one of those bizarre animal kingdom kind of reproduction methods. We're talking about you harnessing bacteria to multiply your genetic material.
Elder offspring: Yeah ... still no. One of me is enough.
Younger offspring: Yes it is.
Glaring ensued. As it does.
*Let the record reflect that the younger Free-Ride offspring was objecting to the general information that bladders can be infected, not objecting to an overshare of personal information (and indeed, it was general, not personal, information the elder Free-Ride offspring was sharing here).
**We did this accidentally not too long ago. It blew the door of the microwave oven open in spectacular fashion. It was still pretty tasty, and no one was hurt.
***In case you were wondering, this is a discussion that happened at the dinner table during dinner.