Darwin’s Surprise

Over a hundred years ago, Charles Darwin proposed a mechanism that would forever change the study of biology. By illustrating the compelling evidence of a universal common ancestor and evolution through natural selection, he paved way for biologists to research and hypothesize the origins of mankind. However as society continues to advance in technology, Darwin’s proposition are still taught because despite his inability to view DNA sequences, this concept was mostly accurate. Little did he know that many years later, scientists would discover retroviruses to further strengthen the ideas presented in The Origins of Species by Means of Natural Selection.

Currently, our DNA has fragments of these retroviruses that are called “junk DNA” because they “serve [no] purpose or cause harm” (64). However growing up, people become trained to associate viruses with sickness and despair. At the slightest mention of a virus, people bolt in the opposite direction and vigorously disinfect nearby surfaces. Darwin’s Surprise threatens this negative connotation by explaining that viruses are not only inside us, but sometimes even helping us. Virologist, Thierry Heidmann, believed that “without endogenous retroviruses mammals might never have developed a placenta” (66). Without the placenta, live births wouldn’t be possible – an event widely known as “one of the hallmarks of our evolutionary success” (66). The fact that retroviruses are barely studied in honors biology is astounding because they seemed to play a vital part in our evolutionary process.

Another idea that caught my eye in the article is the revival of these retroviruses to combat future illnesses. Though the primary focus was using revived viruses to see how we operate and evolved, it was an interesting concept that is similar to how flu vaccines are made today – by using the previous year’s flu: “hope that excavating the molecular past will help address the medical complexities that we confront today” (66). There are certainly potential dangers with reviving viruses that people once desperately tried to eradicate, but the possible benefits could outweigh these dangers. We could be one revival away from a revelation in combating some illnesses that plague our society today. For instance, the article mentioned how monkeys have a gene that protect against HIV infection. But, that same gene does not do the same for humans so Harmit Malik and Michael Emerman revived ptERV to test that and HIV with a modified human TRIM5α: “In every case, the protein blocked either ptERV or HIV …. But it never protect the cells from both viruses” (70). By studying this protein and those viruses, Malik and Emerman were able to hypothesize that a drug mimicking the monkey version of the protein would prove helpful in stopping HIV. These new ideas could spark a creation that later helps millions of people.

My perspective on viruses has altered greatly after reading this article. Not all viruses are harmful, and some even helped bring us to where we are today. These things that we denounce daily could potentially be the key to unlocking new and successful cures. Similarly, they’ve slowly become a part of us and played a major role in our past (they helped us develop placentas!). As I continue to pursue a career in the healthcare industry, I’m very excited to see where the research on retroviruses goes.

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