News about COVID vaccines are everywhere in the media today. Many of them discuss a new type, containing some kind of a code.
But we thought vaccines contained weakened pathogens. Not these then?
What kind of code are we talking about exactly?
High-tech in a needle
Vaccines today are produced using a number of different technologies, also corona virus vaccines.
In the beginning, all vaccines contained weakened pathogens.
Later the decoding of viruses made it possible to code and produce artificial weakened pathogens or parts of pathogens. So it became an option to put artificially built protein in vaccines. Many efficient vaccines today are still made with this technology.
The newest, messenger RNA based technology vaccines on the other hand contain only a coded message for our bodies to produce such a protein. The message is delivered by the RNA, and then the code is run in our bodies to produce protein that looks like a part of a pathogen.
So it’s also important to see that although we are talking about a genetic code here, it doesn’t mess with our human DNA. Instead, it makes some of our cells to mimic virus-looking DNA in a new protein.
From this point on the process is the same for all vaccines: the new protein is recognised as a threat by our immune system, it starts defence protocol, and by running the protocol it learns how to react and protect us from getting sick in case it meets a real virus next time. This reaction of the immune system is sometimes accompanied by temporary muscle soreness and high temperature, just like we might have sore muscles right after an intense workout.
Code, but what kind?
With the help of the messenger RNA and genetic code carried by it we program the body to produce proteins instead of us producing them – much like when we program a computer to do something instead of us.
So this code is just like computer code? Yes and no.
Yes, because this is a digital code, too, to be translated and run by our body, just like computer code is translated and run by our computer. It helps us outsourcing and optimising a task, and speeding up the whole process.
And no, because genetic code is not binary, since it contains not 2 but 4 characters, it is not read by a computer but our cells (or rather ribosomes in our cells), and it does not translate to an electric signal but a biological one.
Interestingly enough, messenger RNA itself is prepared in a 2-step process:
- First, DNA carrying the message is created by feeding the code in a DNA printer (yes, there is a such thing!),
- then via complex chemical and biological processes from these DNA particles messenger RNA is created, which is capable of carrying and delivering the message.
In this sense DNA is like a pendrive, while RNA is like RAM. Just like you would not run computer code from a pendrive directly, but only after uploading it to work memory, genetic program will also be run not from DNA, but from RNA.
What does the code look like?
Codes in vaccines copy parts of and use insights from viruses’ codes. The code of the new corona virus was published by scientists from Shanghai last January.
In September last year Pfizer published the code of their own messenger RNA based vaccine. This the vaccine that has been authorised since and is now used in vaccination programs around the world.
The code of their vaccine is 4284 character long. This is the first 500:
What's in the code?
The code of the vaccine has been analysed by a software engineer, called Bert Hubert. He shared his findings on his blog in December in a highly informative and entertaining article. We recommend you to read the whole thing for more fascinating details and Bert’s hilarious remarks.
Let is just summarise some of the main points from his study here.
- The genetic code usually consists of 4 characters: A, C, G and U/T. As you can see on the picture above, U’s have been replaced by a similar character in the vaccine’s code. The purpose of the change was to make the message get through the “firewall”, that is to hack our immune system. This way our body does not recognise and attack the alien genetic material too early, before the program is run and the protein resembling the corona virus is produced, which should be the target of the immune reaction instead.
- Hacking does not end here. (Since all these tricks are for a good cause, let’s consider these some kind of ethical hacks.) The picture below shows the high level summary or table of contents of the vaccine’s genetic code. The little cap in the beginning represents the beginning of the code to be run (characters “GA” in the sequence), just like “#!” is used for the same purpose in the beginning of UNIX scripts. The cap is not “run” in the system. It only marks the beginning of the code to be run, and in this case it marks the code – and this is the hack part of the story – as coming from the nucleus, which is practically the command centre of the cell. Although it doesn’t come from the nucleus, it comes from the vaccine. Due to this little lie the ribosome is convinced that the code is legit and runs it without thinking twice. Smart!
- The remaining sections of the code send other important information to the ribosome: like what the protein particles should look like exactly, to start producing them as soon as possible, to make as many of them as possible, and how exactly to modify them so as they do not “collapse” to an unrecognisable mass, before the immune system notices them.
- Finally we learn that the code ends in 70 “A”‘s. According to Bert this can be read as a sign that even the vaccine is tired of the pandemic already. He also lists a number of other functions this part of the code might have.
There are some further recommended readings mentioned in the article, and we recommend Bert’s blog for further reading, too, if you find the intersection of coding and research, biology and medical science interesting.
If you would rather like to continue the deep dive by getting familiar with the basics of coding first, we recommend ourselves and especially our programming courses.
You can choose to study online from the comfort of your own home, or on-campus to get the live Codecool vibe in our schools.
If you’re interested, reach out! We can’t wait to talk to you!