Biological Sleeper Agents: Endogenous Retroviruses

Endogenous retroviruses take the phrase “sleeping with the enemy” to a whole new level, the molecular level, to be specific. These biological sleeper agents have been integrated into our genome through the course of millions of years, but only much recently have scientists began to understand how to awaken them. I have always been fascinated by viruses but I could never view them as something other than harmful. This article showed me just how complex and many-sided biology can be.

As I learned in the article, the mammalian placenta could not have developed without retroviruses and we would not even be defined as humans in the way we are today. Retroviruses have played a large and even beneficial role in our evolutionary history.

Like a scene straight from a horror movie, Thierry Heidmann brings an ancient virus back to life with modern technology. The thing from this article that struck me the hardest was the simple fact that we are truly living in a new day and age where this is possible. Just 50 years ago, Professor Robin Weiss’ idea that these viruses played an essential role in an organism’s development was rejected. Instead of giving up, he continued to work on his theory. To make revolutionary scientific progress, we must take a leap of faith like professor Weiss did. This, however, brings into question the ethics of bringing dead viruses back to life. While the ominous possibility of bioterrorism looms in the back of our head, I do believe that paleovirology should still be pursued. Of course, it should be a cautious effort, but we must be willing to take risks to eradicate deadly viruses like H.I.V and potentially save billions of lives.

Like genetic battle scars, these endogenous retroviruses serve as a reminder of our right as a species to survive on this planet amongst all its living creatures.

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