Scientists Say: Vector

This word has special meanings in disease and biology

When mosquitoes transfer diseases from one person to the next, they become a vector. 

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Vector (noun, “VEHK-tor”)

In medicine, a vector is an organism that can spread disease between hosts. For instance, a mosquito is the vector for Zika.

In research, scientists use vectors to transfer information from one organism to another. These vectors may be viruses — tiny infectious particles.

In a sentence

In medicine: To limit the spread of Zika, scientists are trying to control its vector — the mosquito.

In biological research: Scientists are using bacteria as vectors to put genes from wild bananas into the farmed bananas that we eat — hoping to save them from a deadly fungal disease.

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Power Words

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DNA    (short for deoxyribonucleic acid) A long, double-stranded and spiral-shaped molecule inside most living cells that carries genetic instructions. It is built on a backbone of phosphorus, oxygen, and carbon atoms.In all living things, from plants and animals to microbes, these instructions tell cells which molecules to make.

vector   (in medicine) An organism that can spread disease, such as by transmitting a germ from one host to another. (in biological research) A vehicle that scientists use to transfer genes from one organism to another.

virus   Tiny infectious particles consisting of RNA or DNA surrounded by protein. Viruses can reproduce only by injecting their genetic material into the cells of living creatures. Although scientists frequently refer to viruses as live or dead, in fact no virus is truly alive. It doesn’t eat like animals do, or make its own food the way plants do. It must hijack the cellular machinery of a living cell in order to survive.

Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.

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