I’m pretty sure Darwin wasn’t thinking about retroviruses when he came up with his theory of evolution. He studied finches in the Galapagos islands, not mutations in DNA sequences. He definitely would’ve been surprised to learn that non-living entities could not only change our genes but could potentially have an impact on our fitness.
There is one line in particular that stood out the most to me: “If Charles Darwin reappeared today, he might be surprised to learn that humans are descended from viruses as well as from apes.” Viruses. They’re nothing more than DNA/RNA and some proteins. But they have been so instrumental in the evolution of the human species that it is possible that they helped us develop the placenta as a mechanism for nourishing a growing fetus. If it weren’t for endogenous retroviruses, humans would be laying eggs! Viruses have also played a role in our immunity to PtERV, but have left us vulnerable to HIV by the same mechanism.
I personally have also been fascinated by the way science as a entire discipline can have so many implications on numerous aspects of society. Scientists continually specialize and find a new aspect of the world around us to study. Scientific inquiry can easily exist for personal academic enlightenment, or it can be utilized to advance society in some way. Paleovirology specifically was partly the result of the individual interest of scientists such as Thierry Heidmann. But it should also be of particular interest to everyone because research in this field can potentially give us a cure for HIV.
The revival of extinct viruses sounds frightening to me. But I do believe that the implications of this endeavor outweigh the risks. As I was reading the beginning of the article, I though about how closely related this branch of molecular biology could be to bioterrorism. But then the author explained that HIV stimulates endogenous retroviruses that release proteins as a “distress signal,” and that these proteins could be targeted by a potential vaccine. The potential that this research has to accelerate progress with HIV is significant, even if it may be difficult and slow. I think that as long as this research remains ethically sound, then it should be pursued.
The article certainly has changed my perspective on viruses. They don’t just make you sick. They aren’t just genetic material and protein. They aren’t just the things that your AP Biology teacher lectures you about. They have a more significant role to play in our evolutionary past, in our present, and in our uncertain future. I also was not aware they they aren’t just harmful to us. They have an impact on 8% of our DNA, and they could even one day help us to fully understand the modern diseases that plague us today.