Germ: verbs

Verbs; the doing words (verbos)

The commonest forms of greeting are short questions; opening gambits like ‘How are you?’ These are often followed by equally short questions, one of the commonest of which is ‘and what do you do?’  Our contemporary culture defines us according to what we do. Our identity and for some, their meaning in life, is based on occupation: doctor, pathologist, teacher, researcher. And what do you do?

Doing words

This question can be usefully applied to microorganisms. What can each one of them do?  The words used to speak of their actions are the classic doing words; verbs to the grammarian and linguist. Along with substantives (nouns, naming words) verbs lie at the heart of the most basic of sentences. They are so critical to the language we use that some sentences have a single verb as their only word. But before looking at the red-blooded action verbs, there are some basic verbs that hardly get noticed because they are there in everyday us; camouflaged by the mundane functions they serve. These verbs are used to refer to a state of being or having and usually only have a subject. Sounds a little complicated, but that’s because these action words fly under the radar. They include to be, to exist, to survive, to grow, to divide, and to die. The bacteria responsible for tuberculosis; Mycobacterium tuberculosis, therefore survives in phlegm.  It grows in laboratory culture, it divides in order to replicate and it dies when exposed to antimicrobial therapy. Viruses do not survive for long outside a suitable cellular host, in which they replicate and after treatment with antiviral therapy they die.

Intransigent intransitives

Verbs with a subject (the microorganism) but no object are sometimes called “intransitive”, to distinguish them from the vigorous actions packed into transitive verbs that have both subject (microorganism) and object (e.g. victim).  Examples of these red-blooded action words are to colonise, to invade, to infect, to transmit, to inoculate, to cause, to harm and to kill. So Plasmodium falciparum, the protozoan that causes malaria invades red blood cells and an Anopheles mosquito transmits the infective stage of the parasite, it harms many infected people every year and kills some of them.


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