Darwin’s Surprise Party

The article specifically states that, “If Charles Darwin reappeared today, he might be surprised to learn that humans are descended from viruses as well as from apes.” The Darwin model of evolution by natural selection doesn’t include viruses. Individuals that are especially fit have many offspring and those that are not especially fit do not. Eventually the traits that led to those fit individuals become more common and a population evolves. But where do those traits come from? They couldn’t have all come from the original primordial soup, and they didn’t. According to the Darwin model of evolution, the one and only source of genetic variation, of new traits, is mutation. Somewhere in the process of DNA replication, the sequence gets “messed up,” and maybe just maybe it codes for a different polypeptide and then the phenotype is expressed differently. But the interesting thing about this article, what would have surprised Darwin, is where a lot of this genetic variation, of these new traits, is actually coming from. What scientists are finding is that certain viruses, over really long periods of time, can actually permanently make themselves apart of a species by infecting sperm or egg cells and passing from generation to generation. This is what would have surprised Darwin, is how big of a player viruses are in evolution.

The final sentence of the first paragraph got me hooked on the article. It was a quote that said “Viruses can provide answers to questions we have never even asked.” I’ve always thought that viruses were cool, but I learned that viruses are so cool that scientists don’t even know quite how cool they actually are, they’re only finding out. It’s amazing that 8% of our entire genome is just these fossilized remnants of ancient viruses. The experiments that scientists are doing are truly remarkable. They not only teach us about our evolutionary history and past struggles with epidemics, but they also give us clues on how to deal with HIV, and hopefully find a cure for it. But as the article states, “Inevitably though, it also conjures images of Frankenstein’s monster and Jurassic Park.”

Probably the most notable and remarkable example of viruses becoming part of our DNA in our long history is the placenta. The article says that scientists “have suggested that without endogenous retroviruses mammals might never have developed a placenta, which protects the fetus and gives it time to mature. That led to live birth, one of the hallmarks of our evolutionary success over birds, reptiles, and fish. Eggs cannot eliminate waste or draw the maternal nutrients required to develop the large brains that have made mammals so versatile.” This article absolutely has changed my view/understanding of viruses. I had some idea that viruses must have played some part in evolution, but not like this. I thought that viruses would infect a population, kill off most individuals and the ones who were immune due to some mutation would live on and prosper and evolution would happen. But it’s so much more than that. Viruses are absolutely crucial to the process of evolution, and play so much bigger of a part that I ever would have thought.

Science should revive dead viruses. Why not? It is so cool. I love science, and I love the process of learning new things. We have some idea of where this new field of biology will take us, but to a certain extent we have no idea. And I love that. We don’t necessarily know what we’re looking for, but when we find it, and by it I mean the constant flow of new science we’ll be getting for generations of scientists to come, when we find it it will change the world. It sounds kind of scary and dangerous and it probably is but I say go for it scientists! Explore new frontiers!

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3 Responses to Darwin’s Surprise Party

  1. SpencerT says:

    Your optimism for biologists’ pursuit of virological knowledge is inspiring, Alex! I, too, am excited to learn what these scientists discover by resurrecting long-extinct viruses.

    To me, “Darwin’s Surprise” further reinforces a guiding principal of biology that we’ve been taught from near-day-one: nothing is “good” or “bad” in biology. Things have negative effects on some individuals while having a positive effect on its species, or vice versa, or swap species for community—etcetera. Like most sciences, biology is a muddy, gray field. That makes it all the more exciting when we can draw the connections between different phenomena and determine what made them come to be.

  2. GloriaE says:

    I agree that viruses are “so cool,” but the stance of just jumping into reviving old viruses is a bit unnerving. If scientists aren’t exactly sure about viruses in the present, why should they just start exercising some Frankenstein protocol and resurrecting things? While I’m sure that it will bring new things to light, I think that we need to find out more about viruses and their kind in a present-tense setting before trying to find out what their ancient purpose was in our evolution. It could probably work both ways (present to past, and vice versa), but to alleviate the uncertainty, having a working knowledge now will streamline things in the future as we delve further into seeing how viruses “contribute to making us human.” (Villarreal) Phil brought up a good point in a previous article, and I think that applies here as well. He said that the terms on which they test the viruses determine if they should be used or not. Instead of just saying “why not?” we should make sure that the terms are ethical and will ultimately advance the knowledge of viruses.

  3. sjrule says:

    Your right to say explore new frontiers! Think about how many other things have been shaped by viruses. Just recently I watched a video explain how a human skin bacteria, (well a different strain of the bacteria) was found on grapes. They estimated that the bacteria made the “jump” about the same time humans started cultivating grapes. While the bacteria has no obvious effects on the grapes, to know that our history can be laid along the same track as virus mutation is amazing. The sheer number of things we have in turn effected by exposing things to human specific viruses could be astounding. Who knows, maybe the cure to some of our ailments exist in the snippets of DNA in other animals. It does make me nervous to be playing with “Zombie viruses” but I agree that the information gained by these experiment is vast and awesome.

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