Darwin’s Surprise

Darwin would be surprised to learn that viruses, non-living genetic material, can evolve faster and more efficiently than actual living organisms can. Although Darwin understood that organisms have descent with modification, he did not know how these modifications originated or have a background with genetics. Learning that viruses coevolve with their hosts that allow them to replicate would likely surprise Darwin, especially because they comprise a solid amount of our DNA and without viruses, humans would have evolved much differently. In a way, we are part virus.

Endogenous retroviruses, viruses that have become part of our DNA, comprise eight percent of our DNA, while only two percent of our DNA codes for all the proteins that allow us to live. Because viruses do not have enzymes that proofread during replication, viruses mutate rapidly, and the viruses that have become part of our DNA are now extinct and have changed drastically over time. Scientists can put the broken fragments of the extinct viruses’ DNA back to their original sequence and bring them back to life, a concept that seems impossible, but has many possible applications.

I was fascinated by how endogenous viruses have the potential to protect us from worse viruses interesting, especially how it resulted in the formation of the placenta and how other apes are immune to HIV. The endogenous retrovirus Pan troglodytes, or ptERV for short, infected primates a few million years ago, but humans were able to repel it. However, humans are now vulnerable to HIV while other primates are not, because of this adaptation. Humans make a protein that destroys ptERV, protecting us from infection. In primates, this gene protects against HIV.

Another concept I found interesting is speeding up the life cycle of the AIDS virus, to bring it into extinction. By increasing the number of mutations, the virus will no longer function correctly and will cause no or little harm to the host. I found this surprising, because the rapid evolution of viruses is the reason that drugs become ineffective at combating the virus after short periods of time. Scientists would essentially outsmart the virus.

I believe the revival of dead viruses is beneficial, as it expands our knowledge of the nature of viruses and how they coevolved with their hosts. Some may be hesitant to unnaturally toy with nature, but the benefits of what we can learn from this research could help create ways to prevent infections from the viruses permanently. By looking at how past viruses evolved, we can predict and learn how new diseases develop and affect the population. Learning how humans have evolved ways to protect against viruses in the past could help develop drugs that will disable viruses such as AIDS or the flu. Scientists are not creating something evil or bad, but using our DNA as fossil evidence of viruses.

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