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In my story I have a strain of virus capable of stealing parts of or changing its hosts DNA, so it could copy the abilities in nature for its next host of choice by taking the genes which control the creation of cells for organs or processes such as an electric eels ability to generate electric fields or photosynthesis etc.

At some point I need the virus to become sentient and conscious, either it becomes conscious after infecting the neurons of its choice host or it is some outside conscious colony of viruses (maybe in host bacteria if that helps) which is in control and can communicate with the viruses in the host controlling the host from a far.

The viruses would work their way up to humans from more basic just running on instincts creatures to slightly smarter then finally to humans so hopefully the depth of our thought process won't be too much to handle.

As my knowledge of science is limited it would be a great help for any known processes that could theoretically allow viruses first achieving consciousness from living in the mind and bodies of creatures taking control of them or by taking their DNA to some sort of colony where all the information is stored in a hive-like mass of viruses whose shared information gains consciousness?

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  • $\begingroup$ Both. You have Host Brain in The Walking Dead. You have Viral Colony in Stranger Things. Both are successful shows. $\endgroup$ – Shadowzee Aug 8 at 2:16
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    $\begingroup$ Neither are "plausible" is a scientific sense. We have no knowledge of either of these things ever happening and they seem very, very unlikely. $\endgroup$ – StephenG Aug 8 at 3:25
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    $\begingroup$ @shadowzee I don't think the Mindflayer is a viral colony. $\endgroup$ – Renan Aug 8 at 3:25
  • $\begingroup$ There are nice answers already, so just some points: The whole ability-swap thing will only work if coordinated from something that can get an overview - you cannot just transfer a few genes, and - presto! - have a racoon electric-eel-zap someone. There is a whole lot of interdependences to take care of. So the virus should achieve consciousness before ability swapping. 'Consciousness' is ill defined, so how about start with altering behaviour of infected groups, and work your way up to a hive-mind - for science-oriented hive mind, take a look at Ōmu Shinrikyō ... $\endgroup$ – bukwyrm Aug 8 at 7:50
  • $\begingroup$ @bukwyrm agreed it will need consciousness first, I worded the points in the wrong order $\endgroup$ – rag haran Aug 8 at 11:52
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Viruses cannot achieve consciousness as we know it because they do not communicate among themselves.

In the briefest terms, a virus is a piece of dna inside a microscopic capsule. The capsule has protheins that allow the viral DNA to enter cells and hijack their prothein producing mechanisms, but that's it.

Therefore a virus can only be as intelligent as DNA is. But despite our neurons developing according to our DNA, our DNA in and by itself is not intelligent and does not communicate, much less from afar. Even if it did, the smallest of our chromosomes is orders of magnitude larger and more complex than a viral strand of DNA.

Some viruses may seem at a glance to be able to control the host - such as the rabies virus. Turns out the aggressive behavior the virus causes on animals is a random trait that was favored by evolution, because it leads to spreading by biting. The virus does not control the host, and in fact the neural tissue of the host is, well, destroyed in the course of the infection.


Don't give up on your storytelling, though. You can still write the story you want, with more or less realism.

For a small level of realism, just write it without trying to be scientific about it. Take a page from Marvel Comics. In real life gamma ray exposure kills you. In comics you become the Hulk. If I remember well at least one writer in Marvel had it that all humans naturally have superpowers, but those are kept in check by intelligent bacteria, and all mutants with superpowers are people who are resistant to that bacteria.

For a higher level of realism, forget about viruses and use fungi. Read about cordyceps. It might freak you out a little bit. For decades we thought this beast infected neural tissue, but just a few months ago scientists found out cordyceps can only control muscle tissue. It physically fights the insects' brains for control of their bodies! And fungi are known to communicate among themselves. Another finding about cordyceps is that every infected individual is infected by a colony, and the colony coordinates the signals it sends to the muscles.

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    $\begingroup$ I made the assumption that the virus hijacks the host tissues, not develops its own. This makes virus size a non-problem. +1 for the fungus, but you really should flesh out the details there. It seems that's where a good answer is sitting. $\endgroup$ – fredsbend Aug 8 at 8:14
  • $\begingroup$ @renan good answer thank you, I did think of fungi, the reason I chose a virus is they can infect fungi, bacteria , cells etc so with more fiction unfortunately it seems and less science I could have the virus use all their abilities also. $\endgroup$ – rag haran Aug 8 at 11:43
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There's an issue with the question. You assume consciousness is a biology defined term. It's not. It is a philosophy term. Thinking of it biologically is what's giving you the trouble.

Let's talk biology first

Viruses infecting brains is not common, but it's certainly not rare. Viruses mutating quickly is what they're known for. Viruses hopping species barriers is not rare either, but there's major limitations if you don't include dormancy in a carrier species (like mosquitoes). All these can be hand waved away in your story, as they're close enough to reality.

Where you're hung up is on the evolution. Evolving and mutating viruses can certainly take DNA from hosts and incorporate it into itself, but such gene stealing is only propagated to the rest of the viruses via reproduction¹. The successful viruses would be the ones that reproduce the best. By definition, evolution favors replicators, not borrowers or hoarders (or whatever you envision the virus doing). Your virus needs a reason to attain and keep any genes it steals along the way. That's how evolution works and without that, science minded readers will notice. Most will probably forgive you if you mostly hand-wave it away, but brief explanations on how and why some traits were preserved would be enough.

Now let's talk philosophy

Consciousness is hard to define. There's varying opinions, including those that label it a construct only (which gets meta when you point out that it's because of consciousness that you can even discuss consciousness). Among biologists staying in their lane, they often just label it as a complex behavioral trait that is partially exhibited in lesser animals (like chimps), and like always, contributed to successful reproduction. Getting philosophers to answer why consciousness exists is like pulling teeth. Most will answer with rhetorical questions like: why do we love, why are we here, and who am I. It's a thing to ponder, not a question to answer.

You have to ask yourself what consciousness means for you and your story. Does the virus comprehend itself? Does it understand how it affects its environment? Does it realize the limited nature of the resources that feed it? Does it have desires beyond its overt needs? Does it talk? Does it fear death? Does it believe in God? Once you figure this out, you can proceed.

There's a fungus that drastically changes the behavior of ants by infecting the brain², but that's a far cry from consciousness. Further, the fungus within any given ant doesn't communicate with the fungus in another ant. That's collective consciousness, which is an order higher than individual consciousness, and doesn't exist anywhere, so far as we know. But your readers can probably forgive this quickly to, because it's a common trope. The closest we have in real life is colony and hive species. Ants and bees act with a peculiar single mind. It's quite fascinating, but requires proximity. All their communication seems to be chemical/behavior triggers. Ants aren't conscious and neither is their colony.

If you want a collectively conscious virus in the brains of many people, you have to explain how they communicate. If each brain gets a unique consciousness, you don't have to explain anything.


  1. I'm pretty sure viruses do this already, and I'm certain bacteria do with each other, though gene sharing might be a better term. The term gene stealer reminded me of the Tyranids from Warhammer 40K. This alien-bug species conquers worlds then dissolves all biomass to consume it and to incorporate the DNA into itself. You might find inspiration there.
  2. Check out Ophiocordyceps unilateralis for some real life scifi. Nature can inspire your stories more than you typically expect.
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  • $\begingroup$ good answer thank you and thanks for the ideas links, you brought up some good points on the viruses motives and conscious, I wanted it learn from the human, then make up its own "mind" over thousands of years what it will do with its power, for conscious I was thinking an information and processing department similar to a computer and some hormone style process for feelings making it more sentient. $\endgroup$ – rag haran Aug 8 at 11:49
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My first answer on this site, here goes...

I used to dabble in microbiology, and at first I dismissed your question as simply impossible. However it kept me thinking, and I came up with a chain of events.

  1. Viruses 101

We have to remember that viruses are tiny and very very simple. They each have their tiny bit of genetic code, a capsule of some type and a few enzymes. They don't have a metabolism of their own, they are just a vessel for a few genes basically relying on cheer number and luck to spread. It is debated if they even are "alive". They rely entirely on their hosts to execute their only function: reproduction. This task usually overwhelms their host cells, who die performing it. Each virus strain has at most a few viable host cells.

  1. Evolution 101

For any new ability for our virus to develop we need random mutations that make it better at competing against other organisms taking the same living space. A mutation occurs in a single virus, and is passed on to its offspring. Some viruses can pass segments of their genome to other viruses when they come to direct contact with them. Reproduction is the only "goal" of lower lifeforms, before our virus develops a conscience, it is simply implausible for it to survive with a trait that is a burden. Humans can make choices that hinder their ability to reproduce, but viruses whose ability to reproduce is hindered are snuffed out by more virulent ones.

  1. Viral mass

For a hive mass of viruses to develop, the viruses would need special hosts that can sustain them for a long period of time. The viral genes that turn their hosts into virus factories would need to have some sequence to slow the process down, as to not take over the whole of the cells metabolic capacity and burst them, as is the usual MO of viruses. Slowing down reproduction is not a strong card in natural selection, but if keeping host cells alive would guarantee them building new viruses for a longer period of time, the virus strain could in theory survive. Now we have a special host capable of sustaining our virus (=doing everything for it) on its way to greatness.

  1. Communication

As previous answers have pointed out, communication between neurons is the base of our human consciousness. For your viruses to develop intelligence, they need a rudimentary means of communication between units. Depending on the sustaining host, I think it can take different forms. For example, different cells of the immune system communicate with chemical signals secreted or on their surface, plant cells are directly connected to each other and of course neurons use a combination of electricity caused by ion shifts and chemicals. Search for other examples from nature to find one that suits your need. For communication to develop to our strain we of course need these random mutations to give it an edge over competitors. Maybe the capability to communicate helps the host cell evade danger? Again examples from nature can be drawn.

  1. Hive mass

We have viruses that have enduring hosts that can communicate. Now they need a reason to aggregate and form large masses. The human brain has up to 100 trillion synapses. This goes beyond my expertise, but biologically I don't see a reason why a mass of units of a similar number of connections couldn't theoretically form a single conscience. Now I imagine this sapient hive as a mass of undifferentiated cells, containing only billions upon billions of units of the chosen host cell including our viral genome. The size needed depends on the means of communication, even more connections than in the human brain might be needed. You also might need to take into account the being's size vs communication speed between units, which can result in much slower thinking compared to humans (this can bring new sides to your story). The being cannot reproduce itself as a whole, but is immortal. Physically the mass cannot reside inside another being, since the lifespan would be too short. It should be somewhere where it can constantly find new hosts to aggregate to the existing mass to replace dying host cells or to grow. A body of water comes to my mind.

  1. Is it still a virus?

The being reproduces its units by spreading vessels containing genetic code that take over host cells aka by spreading viruses. The genes used to communicate between units and aggregate to the existing mass would have to be contained in these viruses. The host cells do all the metabolic work but without the viral genome, they wouldn't be a part of this hive-being. The viral genome must be quite big at this point, but in nature viruses have huge variation, and biggest viruses found have a genome of two megabases, coding over 2000 different proteins.

  1. Conscience

To simplify, by conscience here I mean awareness of self and the capability of forming goals other than simple reproduction. This again goes beyond my field of expertise. Since in us humans our awareness of self is largely shaped by the environment we perceive with our senses, it is hard to imagine what the conscience of a big lump of undifferentiated cells would be like. However, it has an endless lifespan as long as its existence and its environment stay balanced. We are in the realm of speculation now.

  1. Ability stealing

This is the most complicated part. The viruses the hive sends out to gather new hosts could gain mutations that make them able to take different cells as hosts. Then the virus in a new cell can take in its genome bits of the hosts genes and according to its base coding compel the host to aggregate with the hive. There it will spread it's newly gained genes with the rest of the hive. The problems with this: - the outgoing viruses don't have a will or plan, the potential hosts they find is based on luck - the new genes taken in are random - the units returning to the hive have most probably gathered useless crap genetic code - when gathered is spread to the rest of the hive units it is like accumulation of useless trash which will sorta weigh the units down or be downright detrimental by integrating into needed genes - number of useful genes gathered / amount of thrash = tiny This all leads to the conclusion that the hive would need to somehow filter the genetic material brought by the returning units. This goes against the basic function of viruses: singular viruses gather genetic material at random and natural selection eliminates the ones that got something detrimental or even too much useless weight. Our hive however cannot die everytime a piece of garbage sequence is brought back.

  1. Viruses in host brain

I haven't been able to think of a way this would work. Even if a strain of virus could integrate itself in all of a brains neurons without killing the host animal and somehow form a new conscience there, it would die when the host animal dies. It wouldn't be able to make plans or at least see them through. Maybe a new animal contracts the strain and a new conscience develops in its brain, but it wouldn't have the memories of the previous one or even knowledge of its existence.

To recap. A lasting central mass is needed, it has to be composed of supporting host cells each containing the viral genome to control it to communicate and aggregate. The hive "secretes" tons of viruses that bring back viable hosts and new genetic material. The genetic material has to be somehow filtered and tested. This being needs a huge amount of time and luck to develop when we remember the driving forces of evolution: random mutations and natural selection.

Interesting problem! I hope my explanation didn't complicate things too much.

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  • $\begingroup$ Great answer @Alex Leon, thank you, I feel privileged to be your first answer, I like the idea of the mass and bringing hosts back for their genes, I previously had an idea for the mass inspired by cave bacteria, might be a leap to far into fiction but the virus making an immortal host will help for eyes to see the world and act, with the mass as you have described being the super brain hidden away. $\endgroup$ – rag haran Aug 10 at 22:40
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Our consciousness is dependent on the communications between our neurons. Reasoning from that, you need your viruses to communicate. Since there isn't a fast channel available in reality, maybe you can invent one.

It's very far fetched to imagine an artificial neuron network (ANN) or natural neuron network (NNN) forming in that higher dimension space, but that is why is it called speculative fiction.

The virus might use Planck scale bosons or fermion strings vibrating in 2d to communicate between different virus bodies.

The degree of a couple of vibrations between the different 2d entities and all the 3d virus bodies would provide an equivalent of the synaptic potential of a NNN or weighting of a trained path in an ANN actually a projection of a 4d or higher thing to into our 3d world, and the communication happens in the higher dimensions.

With enough neuron equivalents and interconnects then one could propose intelligence as an emergent property. And given the time scale of Planck scale entities, they could conceptually evolve very quickly from intelligence to consciousness to a virus equivalent of self-awareness then sapience and whatever might come after that.

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  • $\begingroup$ great answer, thank you, this biological character was just going to lead up to the more powerful particle/ energy type characters, ill read up more on what you suggested and it could also really help with my other characters. $\endgroup$ – rag haran Aug 8 at 21:06

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