Response to “Darwin’s Surprise”

After reading Michael Specter’s “Darwin’s Surprise” there are many ideas and thoughts to reflect on. This article talks about the effect that viruses have had on the evolution of the human species and whether we can use this information to benefit the survival of the humans species against harmful retroviruses like H.I.V.

Many theories and ideas were presented throughout this article that I think Darwin would be very surprised to here. Robin Weiss, a professor of viral oncology at University College London, once wrote “If Charles Darwin reappeared today, he might be surprised to learn that humans are descended from viruses as well as from apes,” in an essay that was published in the journal Retrovirology. This article covers a range of topics that all are connected by the idea that viruses have had an effect on the evolution of humans and other species. Darwin would be taken aback by this information because it would, in a sense, challenge his claims about evolution. If not challenge maybe a better word would be to update or alter his claims by saying that along with all his factors for evolution another one could be the incorporation of viral genomes in our own. 

What I found most surprising from this article was when it was mentioned that viruses that have been fully incorporated into genomes of different species in fragments can be extracted and reassembled and become fully functional. At first, that to me was frightening. A virus that has been dead for millions of years can be “resurrected”, is a scary thought. However I was reassured after reading more on how this process can be used to help us understand what exactly the effects were that viruses had in the past and possibly what affects viruses like H.I.V. can have in the future.

One example that I remember that showed how viruses have had role in our evolution is when the gene TRIM5a (the a represents “alpha”) was mentioned. In the article it is mentioned, “In the rhesus monkey, that single gene [TRIM5a] provides complete protection against H.I.V. infection. In humans, it does nothing of the kind.”The main difference between human and monkey genomes is that monkeys have about a hundred extra lines of this PtERV virus which shows how they were effected by it and not humans. The scientists went on to theorize that when humans broke off from chimps around 5 million years ago, we developed an effective defense against the PtERV virus but were left vulnerable to the H.I.V. retrovirus. To think that while we developed a defense for one virus we became vulnerable to another one as a result is fascinating. 

Should science “revive” dead viruses? Honestly, I feel that to make scientific progress we need to take some risks because I like to remember the saying: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” I believe this is a shot the science community should take because if they are successful then the implications of what the article was talking about could be life-changing. However, I think we should treat this area with extreme caution as to make sure these revival techniques can’t be used for any harmful purposes.


This entry was posted in AP Biology, Evolution, Viruses. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Response to “Darwin’s Surprise”

  1. henrym says:

    I agree with your last statement, that the scientific community should pursue the “revival” of “dead” viruses. In particular, I would be curious to see how these viruses shaped our evolution. Heidmann spoke to this when suggesting that the placenta evolved because of the presence of endogenous retroviruses. This organ was then able to advance human evolution faster than previously seen because individuals would be better-nourished, developed, and protected. However, to play devil’s advocate, maybe we shouldn’t resurrect these ancient viruses. Knowing the breadth of destruction that viruses can cause (such as HIV, smallpox, and the Spanish flu), would we want to risk exposing the population to one again? The article suggested that some of the most voracious viruses would have died out with their host populations. Can we risk letting a virus destroy whole groups and generations of people before it disappears again?

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