Viruses Shaped Humanity

I believe the article Darwin’s Surprise by Michael Spencer was aptly named. Although the scientific community has long recognized Darwin’s “theory” of natural selection, this new research on viruses contributes strong, undeniable evidence. One of the major parts of Darwin’ s “theory” of natural selection is that all species are related to each other and share a common ancestor from, which they evolved.  The viral evidence discussed in this article supports this claim. Humans and chimpanzees (our closest relatives) share a considerable number of the same viral fragments in our DNA. This statically could not be a coincidence and thus proves that humans and chimpanzees evolved from a common ancestor who also carried all of the similar viral fragments in their DNA. The article poses the idea that if “Charles Darwin reappeared today, he might be surprised to learn that humans are descended from viruses as well as from apes”. I think he would be extremely surprised since viruses were not seen until 1935 by Wendell Stanley and Charles Darwin died in 1882. He would also be surprised that life originated from something that is not considered alive.

I had previously known that large parts of DNA are formed of introns, non-codeding sequences. These sequences are considered “off” because they do not lead to the formation of proteins in a cell. What surprised me was that humans had disabled retroviruses imbedded in their DNA. What was even more surprising was the amount, eight percent. I never would have thought that over our evolutionary history viruses would have made their way into the DNA of our gametes and thus the entire species. This article has taught me that not only is this reality but that the viruses were essential to human evolution, and without them the human species may never have evolved into successful organisms.

Like many people I went into this article-perceiving virus as bad. They are parasites and that word has a strongly negative connotation, and for good reason. Viruses have been the bane of human existence for millennia; our immune system is in a constant evolutionary struggle against them. They have caused us discomfort and sickness and have taken our lives all throughout human history. This article opened my eyes to the possibility that viruses could have been an essential step to human evolution and our success over numerous species. Viruses have the ability to shield its host from other viruses. The disabled retroviruses in our DNA have protected us form modern viruses, just as chimpanzees are protected from the negative effects of HIV due to their evolutionary past. Viruses have also given humanity the evolutionary advantage over other organisms. It has been suggested that endogenous retroviruses played a role in a mammal’s ability to have live births due to the placenta. The mammals advanced and prolonged development in the womb has led to their dominance over many birds, fish, and reptiles,” eggs cannot eliminate waste or draw the maternal nutrients required to develop the large brains that have made mammals so versatile.”

Although I was now viewing virtues as more than just evil parasites I was still not convinced that reviving ancient extinct “killers” was a great idea no matter how beneficial that research may be at creating therapies for modern viruses. I like many others mentioned at the beginning of the article was freighted that these experiments were too reminiscent of Frankenstein and Jurassic Park. That it was unnatural to mess with viruses that had been extinct for thousand of years. There are too many risks and too many ways this knowledge could be used with malicious intent. The article was never able to fully convince me that the resurrection of extinct organism was a good I idea but my fears were calmed by the statement that “the viruses [were] put back together in such a way that the virus could reproduce only once.” Thus reducing the risk of these experiments being twisted into bio-weapons or an accident in a lab causing a pandemic.

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7 Responses to Viruses Shaped Humanity

  1. ManzoorR says:

    Viruses can be terrifying, especially because we never really learn anything good about them. This article was both surprising and interesting because I never knew that 10% of our genome consisted of viruses. This article changed my opinion on viruses being completely “bad” to viruses having both a positive and negative impact on humans.
    The positive impact that viruses can have makes me think that scientists should reconstruct viruses because we can learn so much from them. For example, reconstructing the PtERV virus led Malik and Emerman to conclude that because we were immune to PtERV, we were susceptible to HIV. It also made it possible to see what protein was responsible for blocking PtERV and how that protein should function in humans so that when encountering HIV, it neutralizes it the same way it does in chimps. Although finding a drug that acts similarly as the protein does in chimps will take some time, none of this would have been possible if PtERV had not been reconstructed. Scientists do not revive endogenous retroviruses for fun; they modify them for a purpose, and do so in a way where the virus cannot replicate more than once. As long as scientists are reconstructing viruses in a beneficial way, I do think they should be stopped from what they are doing because ultimately, they are trying to save the lives of millions.

  2. TasqinZ says:

    I was surprised to learn that it is possible to recreate viruses that had become deactivated due to the accumulation of mutations. I was also astonished at the amount of data that can be collected by looking at viruses of the past. For instance, it was amazing to learn that although chimpanzees are easily infected by the AIDS virus, they never get sick. The major difference between us is that humans do not have a certain endogenous retrovirus called Pan tryglodytes. But even though we are not protected against HIV or AIDS, we are protected against PtERV while chimps and gorillas are not. Learning about viruses helps explain our evolutionary history and also helps us find potential ways to find a cure against HIV or AIDS, which is why I do agree that we should revive ancient, inactivated viruses. Especially, since we are able to control the viruses to such an extent that they are only allowed to reproduce once as Harmit Malik had done when he resurrected endogenous viruses. Although, there is always a risk of the knowledge of resurrecting viruses being used for a malicious reason, it is not possible to restrict the knowledge from being gained. So it would be more beneficial to use it to create therapies and have time to place more regulations, safety precautions, and set a course of action to combat viruses released from the laboratory.

  3. rishyg7 says:

    I thought the article Darwin’s Surprise was very interesting for many reasons that Rebecca did. I agree, it did not surprise me to find out that the reason eukaryotic cells had introns but it definitely was a surprise that so much of our DNA had been introduced through viruses. I also thought it was interesting that viruses embedded in our DNA can help us gain resistance from other viruses. I disagree with Rebecca about the fact that reviving ancient viruses is always a bad idea. If we study old viruses we could figure out what caused them to no longer infect humans. We could also use them to fight against the viruses that are in the world today. I think as long as we experiment with viruses in a controlled environment the pros would outweigh the cons, and as mentioned in the article there was a limit to how many times the viruses could reproduce to limit the viruses time to mutate.

  4. alindsey9 says:

    “Viruses have been the bane of human existence for millennia; our immune system is in a constant evolutionary struggle against them”(rmritter). It’s fascinating to me that viruses can simultaneously be the “bane of human existence” and be a hopeful part of our future. Because chimpanzees were infected by a virus in the past, they now have the PtERV virus integrated into their own DNA and don’t get sick from AIDS. Because humans have been infected by viruses in the past and now contain retroviral DNA in their own, scientists can study ancient viruses to learn how to better fight current viruses. Most amazing, perhaps, is that the quality of viruses that makes them so hard to fight, their ability to replicate and therefore evolve extremely quickly, may be exactly what helps us to fight them. The article stated that at Koronis Pharmaceuticals, scientists are trying to fight HIV by accelerating “the already rapid pace of mutation to the point where it produces such an enormous number of errors in its genome that it ceases to pose a threat.” In other words, they are using the virus’ greatest strength against it.

    Another good point “rmritter” brought up was the balance of the public’s uneasiness with resurrecting viruses and the scientific procedure of altering the viruses they create so that they can only reproduce once. That practice is certainly a good precaution, and as Harmit Malik said, “If you can’t apply the knowledge, you shouldn’t do the experiment.” This means that resurrecting viruses would become unsafe and possibly unethical if the scientists could not alter the viruses’ genomes correctly, or chose not to for some other purpose in the name of science. It brings up the ethics trade-off that occurs whenever scientist do research, especially for the sake of knowledge rather than a benign utilitarian cause, because any advance in science can be used to for evil as well as good. One example of this is genetic engineering, which could be used to cure genetic diseases but also brings up the issue of designer babies. Another is telomerase research, which is used with respect to cancer, but could theoretically be corrupted and used in the search for immortality.

  5. SarahD says:

    First of all, I entirely agree with your statement about how this research on viruses extends far beyond what Darwin could have imagined, and that it provides further evidence on his theory of evolution. I am really curious to know if his theory would have more accepted among his community if this research was available at the time. A part of me believes that it would have only worsened the situation. Imagine what people would have said when they found out that what is making them sick is the same thing as what’s inscribed in their genes. It’s too bad we’ll never know.

    However, I only partially agree with your final opinion on how recreating viruses could be detrimental to our society. Although it has the potential to get out of hand, I think that these biologists are very aware of that fact, and they must take measures to prevent any abuse of their research. Yes, there are risks with any sort of scientific research, but as long as it stays in the right hands, I don’t think there will be any substantial issues.

  6. kkyou says:

    Although I agree that Darwin would have been surprised by the existence of viruses and their role in out genetic history, I do not think that he would have been greatly surprised by the fact that life originated from something that is not considered alive. Even though cell theory states that all cells rose from pre-existing cells, Darwin himself acknowledged the presence of proteins and how under the right conditions complex organic structures could arise.
    You say that retroviruses are disabled in humans but that is not completely accurate as it states in the article that proteins are still created by them, albeit not completely functioning proteins. I agree that the fact that viruses are in our DNA is fascination but what I find more fascinating is that these viruses are still somehow able to be reanimated. Although, I do not think this reanimation of viruses will create any mass epidemic or Hollywood type ordeal. Vaccines are a perfect example of how viruses are manipulated today for good instead of harm. If anything, I would have liked more detail on how these scientists manipulated ancient viruses. Hopefully, as you say, further research into these retroviruses will be able to “create therapies for modern viruses”.

  7. AliM says:

    I was very much intrigued by your point that “life originated from something that is not considered alive.” I do not think that this much of a generalization was being made by the article–that is, that viruses helped originate all of life–but it is definitely thought-provoking to consider, and according to this research, they have at least helped the living along in some aspects, like the development of the placenta. Obviously, people still disagree about the true cause of abiogenesis; some experiments like Miller-Urey give us ideas, but nothing is certain. However, I would certainly be interested to learn if there are any theories about viruses not just augmenting life as it goes on, but actually helping jumpstart it incipiently. They seem to be some of the closest things we have to life that are not actually living; after all, although scientists definitively agree that viruses are nonliving, one of the main points this article discussed was about bringing them back to life–the life that they never lived in the first place! To me, it seems like viruses have many more interesting stories to tell, and I look forward to seeing what further research happens with them. Thank you for sparking such fascinating ideas with your post!

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