Darwin’s Surprise

Darwin’s theory of evolution stated that nature selects for advantageous traits, which is then perpetuated throughout generations.  Advantageous traits can arise from mutations and genetic recombination, however, it was previously unthought-of that viruses, non-living organisms that attack cells and are one of the greatest threats to humanity, could influence evolution.  However, through the discovery of endogenous retroviruses, which become apart of the DNA of an organism because retroviruses are capable of infecting our germ lined cells or the cells needed to reproduce, retroviruses have been apart of our genome for millions of years and have been impacting evolution.  The article is entitled “Darwin’s Surprise” because it was never previously thought of that viruses could have a permanent place in the human genome and influence evolution, which makes it a surprise.  I think Darwin would find endogenous retrovirus’ similarities in organisms can lead to more insight of the phylogenetic tree surprising, because Darwin’s theory suggest that advantageous traits result in evolution, however in this case, it is parasitic and non advantageous traits that influence evolution.

The most surprising aspect of this article is that endogenous retroviruses led to the development of the placenta.  The protein syncytin, which causes placenta cells to fuse together, utilizes the same mechanism as retroviruses to latch on to the cells they infect.  There are retroviruses on the syncytium, the tissue between the mother and fetus, so it can be inferred that syncytium utilizes the genes of retroviruses to fuse its cells together.  Retroviruses are responsible for possibly one of the greatest evolutionary benefits to humans because without the placenta, humans would not have been able to develop such a large and complex brain.

The article suggests that viruses have played both a beneficiary role in evolution, with the placenta and PtERV virus, and a non-beneficial role.  Viruses are very complex, because they should be eradicated because of the millions of humans they kill, however, scientists can learn a lot about evolution and current viruses from previous viruses and their structure.  Therefore, scientists should revive dead viruses in order to learn more about the structure of modern day viruses.

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