Symbiosis and Self-Subversion

The field of biology today is largely indistinguishable from where it was during Charles Darwin’s time.  Microscopy was rudimentary at the time, and science didn’t yet know that DNA was the genetic material, let alone how it transmitted information through the generations.  I imagine that he would be incredibly interested how we are now able to use genetics to reconstruct evolutionary timelines—and paleovirology is a field on the cutting edge of the modern frontier of knowledge.  While Robin Weiss believed that Darwin “might be surprised to believe that humans are descended from viruses,” I feel that Darwin would readily accept the idea once he was told how retroviruses functioned.  After all, Darwin believed that organisms showed variation and that some of that variation was heritable.  Knowing how virus genomes could become incorporated with our own he would likely understand how it could serve as a genetic change upon which natural selection could act.

What I think that Darwin would find the most surprising, and what I find the most surprising myself, is how genes that we’ve ‘inherited,’ so to speak, from viruses are able to be repurposed by us for good.  The theory that endogenous retroviruses allowed mammals to develop a placenta, for example, was mind-boggling.  I can’t even begin to imagine how viruses, who function to co-opt cells and hijack them to replicate the virus itself, could have a beneficial relationship with humanity and all life on earth.  I’ve heard of many terrible viruses—everything from the flu and the chicken pox to Ebola and HIV—but never once a good one, before I read this article.  Still, I can believe that it has occurred and continues to shape our evolution.  I’m aware of many bad bacteria, but also know that we have a symbiotic relationship with others.  

That being said, I still feel that there’s a fine line in science between morally acceptable and morally unacceptable experiments.  Moral dilemmas present themselves not infrequently in biology, where the experiments involve living things and discomfort, suffering, or death are potential risks that those living beings face.  Looking retrospectively, it’s always simple to see where we should have drawn the lines or what we could have done differently.  Despite the fact that paleovirology could offer answers as to how we have evolved, and has potential to offer insight into some diseases which plague us today, I can’t help but give in to the risk-averse part of my nature in this instance.  Perhaps paleovirology could satisfy our human curiosity and help to answer an age old question: how did we come to be human?  Perhaps paleovirology could help us better understand how modern threats such as HIV or Ebola function.  Either way, we’re still exposing ourselves to potential danger.  Throughout the article, the author calls upon the specters of plague and influenza, and the devastation that they’ve done to the human race.  If we resurrect ancient viruses, might we not be potentially exposing ourselves to something as terrible?  I’m comforted to read about the researchers sequencing and reconstructing the 1918 flu to develop a vaccine, but at the same time am struck by how incredibly terrible it would have been had anybody accidentally gotten infected with the virus.  Though I’m not wholly opposed to the idea of continuing research in this field, I’d like to close on the worry that no person or program is infallible, no matter what precautions they take.  I think that reviving dead viruses for no reason other than our curiosity could prove to be a big mistake.  Still, my present self wouldn’t be surprised were I to chance upon this post in the future and chuckle at my misgivings here.  I suppose that the greater risks have the greater rewards, but I also worry about how humanity could deal with dangerous power such as resurrecting viruses.

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