Viruses 2.0

Darwin most famously drew an evolutionary connection between humans and apes. His ideas still get propelled, for example, through Darwinism and evolutionary biology. With the advances in science and technology, scientists have used molecular biology and genetics to discover the advantages of viruses — and more shockingly their evolutionary relation to humans. Darwin’s Surprise brings forth how 8% of the human DNA is composed of endogenous viruses, pieces of nonfunctional retroviruses that become incorporated into the DNA; therefore, “beat” by evolution. Since the genetic material and its structure was unknown, Darwin could not have begun to draw any positive relationship between humans and viruses. Thus, could not have assumed that it may be due to viruses that humans arose as a species.

A few centuries after Darwin published Origin of Species, science has exploded in information. For this reason, learning why humans are effected by HIV was the most saddening and surprising. Unfortunately in biology, disadvantages follow advantages. For humans, our inherent defense to Pan troglodytes (PtERV) came with our vulnerability to HIV. Humans are closely related to chimpanzees, and they were originally afflicted by PtERV but now remains in their DNA as an endogenous retrovirus. Most of the advantages and disadvantages pairs I’ve heard do not tend to impose strongly on our ability to survive normally. For example, humans’ ability for movement came at the cost of morphogenesis and growth being limited to embryonic and juvenile periods because the framework for movement (for example, the nervous system) had to be laid down early in our life. This disadvantage does not impose detrimentally such as our inability to protect ourselves against HIV, which amazes me because this disadvantage is deadly. This makes me wonder how humans would be now if the TRIM5α ended up protecting us from HIV but not PtERV?

Thus, to say all viruses only act parasitically is to be speaking without knowing all the facts. Surely many viruses do not hold advantageous properties, but as Darwin’s Surprise points out, certain viruses have held an important role in humans’ evolution. Paleovirology arose because modern diseases can be better battles against if the history of their existence was known. I believe that if an ethical approach to reviving dead viruses gets taken, scientists would come to know how they came to be and maybe which exact changes allowed humans to diverse separately from our ape ancestors. Already many creations of science have changed how humans function and look at the world. Sadly, sometimes things go awry and seemingly harmless science gets used improperly. If the use of “revival” of dead virus gets used solely to understand the evolutionary impact of viruses, then it’s appropriate.

Viruses are more complex than genetic material wrapped around a protein coat. And maybe its time everyone comes to understand.

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