Darwin’s Surprise

The article “Darwin’s Surprise” is aptly named, as there is little content in the article that would not shock the famous creator of the theory of evolution. The content and subject matter of this article is so much more advanced and complex than Darwin’s original theory.  In Darwin’s time, genes were not even known to exist, and DNA was not yet identified as genetic material, so much of the work cited in this article concerning small genetic particles would be a revelation to him.  Genes and DNA aside, it was only fairly recently that scientists discovered that viruses, or minuscule bits of DNA or RNA wrapped in protein, are the agent for spread of disease and the exchange of genetic material. Darwin would be further surprised to hear that viruses, which were unknown infectious agents during his time, may in fact be one of the driving forces for his theory of evolution.  The article explores a theory that retroviruses (RNA viruses which must be translated to DNA to be perpetuated) have become incorporated in human and animals genomes in noncoding DNA. Darwin would be surprised to find that his system of evolution has even greater implications: evolution could be driven by something much smaller and more complex than he had ever realized. He would be excited to see that his theory of evolution seems to have a much wider implication: endogenous retroviruses in DNA provide a viral timeline through which branching off of species can be traced. Assuming there is a common ancestor to all species, the theory of broken retroviruses in human genes as fragment from millions of years of evolution seems to be true.  Related species, according to the article, share many of the same retroviruses at the same place within the genome, a phenomenon that would rarely occur by coincidence alone. Darwin’s theory is not only corroborated with new evidence of broken endogenous retroviruses present in DNA: it is taken to a new level.

Personally, I found it most surprising that scientists can resurrect broken viral fragments that had once been known as “junk DNA” and bring back an extinct virus.  As leading molecular biologist John Coffin said in the article, it is a frightening and exciting idea that humans can “reawaken” long-extinct retroviruses, against the forces of nature and manipulate them. I was also amazed at the implications of this type of research.  The scientists studying fragmented retroviruses in the human genome are looking for solutions in the 8% of the genome; previous research has indicated that only 2% of the human genome actually codes for proteins.  What about the other 90% of DNA that is not old, fragmented retroviruses or coding DNA? This article points to greater implications of what is really possible with full range of knowledge of DNA, which I think is astounding and full of opportunities for cures and discoveries.

The researchers featured in this article have discovered that endogenous retroviruses embedded in the human genome as noncoding portions of DNA are both genes and viruses at the same time. These retroviruses make many errors when they reproduce, so they were not harmful for the host, allowing them over millions of years to become embedded in the genome. Researchers are exploring the uses of these unique genetic elements as possible cures for existing viruses, for providing evidence for an even more precise evolutionary timeline and analyzing their impacts on cancers.  The article claims that there are so many possible uses for these viruses, most of them positive and beneficial to humans. Many of the scientists now believe that viruses helped species develop and that they are a “major creative force” in our evolution. My previous understanding of viruses was limited and consisted chiefly of viral infections.  I knew viruses as parasites and infectious agents and in a casual context, they are related to illness and disease.  I never thought that viruses could be beneficial to humans, especially after hearing about plagues and influenzas that wiped out millions of people.  Looking at retroviruses from this new perspective, however, offers hope that they could provide clues to cures for viral infections such as HIV.

I am not sure how I feel about reviving long-dead viruses.  On one hand, these viruses may be extinct for a reason, and reawakening them and fixing them could have consequences that we cannot control. There could be illness with no cure.  If someone is careless with resurrected viruses and they spread in some form to a population, the viruses may mutate, especially because of retrovirus’ capability quick reproduction and mutation, leaving us with a new disease that is untreatable and unnatural. In the most extreme case, resurrected retroviruses could provide the fuel for bioterrorism. On the other hand, if used responsibly and wisely, these retroviral experiments could lead to many cures, conclusions, and valuable medical research. This research could potentially save lives by provide insights that would be inaccessible without such a bold step.

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2 Responses to Darwin’s Surprise

  1. safiaabdalla says:

    I share your skepticism about the resurrection of retroviruses. While resurrecting the viruses would provide volumes of valuable biological and medical research, what we do with this information could possibly be devastating. As scientists at pharmaceutical companies begin to analyze viruses and how they resistance and cures can be developed against them, it is important to recognize the implications of this kind of research. If viruses truly have contributed to the evolution of humans, manipulating them can cause unforeseen effects. We’ve already manipulated our environment, a key factor in natural selection, manipulating the source of our evolution might cause extreme and unexpected effects. Although it is important to provide cures and resistances to those suffering, it is important to consider the wider implications of what we do.

  2. VictoriaW says:

    I definitely share your wariness about “resurrecting” viruses. Like the article said, it sounds like something from Jurassic Park. Although scientists and researchers have been making leaps and bounds in discovering more about viruses through these studies, the potential for darker consequences is there as well. Specter mentioned that “a talented undergraduate with a decent laptop and access to any university biology lab can assemble a virus with ease.” He referenced the polio virus built at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, which was created solely for the purpose of warning the scientific community of what could be done.

    The question would then be if we should limit access to this type of information for fear of bioterrorism, or if we should continue as we are. Limiting access to the widely available information about viruses, on one hand, may not stop someone who is resourceful. On the other hand, limiting access to this type of information, or stopping these experiments from happening completely, could cripple any scientific advancements and getting closer to treating and preventing HIV viruses. At this point, while I am wary, I think these experiments should continue but to still be handled with the utmost caution.

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