Reviving the Past

Charles Darwin received all the glory for developing a mechanism for evolution and identifying mutations as its main driver, but little did we know that the human race as it is today is, in part, surprisingly thanks to the viruses our ancestors have accumulated over millennia. Most people would be frightened to discover that scientists are purposefully trying to revive these “dead” viruses based on the existing genome within our genome considering the negative associations harbored by the general public. Despite the controversy, reviving these viruses could reveal more about we can be protected from the harmful retroviruses plaguing the human race today such as HIV.

The word “mutation” can also carry a negative connotation, but when Darwin identified mutations as the source for evolution, he made it clear that only the environment can determine whether the mutation’s impact is positive or negative. Results of natural selection will demonstrate this as well. In a similar way, viruses can also be deemed advantageous according to recent research that divulged their dormancy within our genome. A perfect example would be how certain primate’s immunity to HIV was born through exposure to the Pan troglodytes retrovirus, or PtERV, about four million years ago. More accurately stated by Emerman and Malik, “The evolutionary process that protects us from PtERV may be the central reason we are vulnerable to HIV.” Further study of interactions between viruses and certain proteins coded by specific genes demonstrated that the TRIM5A gene creates a protein that protects us from PtERV. This could only have been determined by reviving the extinct virus. Moreover, our ancestors were could only be protected from PtERV because of the corresponding genetic information our cells received in order to eradicate it.

Although humans are battling an HIV pandemic currently, four million years ago the TRIM5A gene was advantageous to preventing PtERV from causing extinctions. The link between identifying the protein’s vitality to PtERV immunity is one we can make between proteins in others organisms against other deadly viruses like influenza. The knowledge scientists have been accumulating as a result of reviving endogenous viruses greatly outweighs the fear of what they could do if they were to be used against a certain groups of people. Even if a mistake were to occur that inadvertently reintroduced the virus to the current population, scientists would be able to develop treatments to once again make people resistant to it. The answers simply lie within our genome. Smallpox is a virus that has been eradicated, and the reason that at least two vials of it are being kept extant is the same, valid reason why it is extremely helpful for scientists to recreate ancient viruses. Although smallpox cannot be circulated again, it is crucial to have the ability to study a virus in order to better understand humans and how they cope with diseases like it.

Viruses have made their way into our genes, and they are partially responsible for our ability to exhibit differential gene expression and create numerous variations of proteins due to mRNA splicing. Evolution is made possible because of their existence, without which the human race as it is today would not look and function the way it does. Darwin, too, would appreciate the significance of viruses to evolution, and he would also confirm that just like mutations, they are not always a bad thing.

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