OH ICK-tivity: Pop Goes the Virus

Joy Masoff, author Oh, Ick!: 114 Science Experiments Guaranteed to Gross You Out (with Jessica Garrett and Ben Ligon), provides an exclusive Ick-tivity you wont find in the book. 

Let’s create a little viral mayhem. Try this experiment to better understand the destructive nature of viruses. Plus, you get to feed the birds in your neighborhood!


Go Fetch

  • deflated balloon
  • birdseed or breadcrumbs
  • funnel (optional)
  • safety glasses
  • needle or safety pin (open it carefully!)

Do This

  1. First, let’s get oriented: the balloon represents a healthy cell in your body, the breadcrumbs represents a virus, and you represent a cool scientist (wait a minute, you are a cool scientist!).
  2. Infection time. Add one piece of birdseed into the balloon (the virus has just slipped its genetic material into one of your cells).
  3. Viruses work by hijacking their host cell’s DNA and forcing it to make copies of the virus. Now, fill the balloon with many more bits of birdseed to simulate this happening; a funnel might make this easier.
  4. Put on your safety glasses (remember: cool scientist, right?).
  5. Blow up and tie off the balloon.
  6. Go outside!
  7. Your cell is so packed with viruses it’s about to burst apart. Hold the balloon up high and away from your body and pop it with the needle. Viruses will scatter everywhere, heading off to infect other cells—or in our case, become bird snacks. Pick up ALL your balloon pieces while observing a moment of silence for your now-deceased cell (if birds eat the balloon pieces, they’ll get sick—so clean up!).

What just happened?

Viruses are much smaller than the cells in your body, and are coated with special proteins that act as keys, tricking your cells into letting them inside. Once inside, the virus hijacks your cell’s control center (the nucleus), forcing it to make tons of copies of the virus. Your cell is now teeming with viruses. Eventually, there are so many viruses inside your cell that it bursts apart and dies (a process called lysis (lie-sis)). Viruses spew everywhere and head off to infect other cells (or if we had carried this model on a bit further, slip into other balloons, multiply, and then pop).

How does this viral reign of terror end? Your body has a top-notch police force: your white blood cells! These enforcers are always on the lookout for bad guys, gobbling up and destroying viruses. Your white blood cells are like a team of mini super-birds that fly around pecking at any stray pieces of birdseed. And relax! Even though viruses kill some of your cells, you DO have about 100,000,000,000,000 other cells in your body. Plus, your dead and injured cells are constantly being replaced with new, healthy cells. You can afford to lose a few battles, knowing that you’ll probably win the viral war in the end!

For more Ick-tivities, check out the book!

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