Darwin’s Surprise

From a very young age, people are taught to be afraid of viruses.  We take vitamins to boost our immune systems, slather ourselves with sanitizing products, and shy away from close contact with anyone who seems to have the sniffles.  It’s not an irrational fear- viruses are the source behind many leading causes of human demise. Even with modern medicine and vaccinations at our disposal, some viruses, like HIV and the flu, mutate so fast we’re hardly able to keep up.  There’s no question about it: viruses are bad news.

But are they?

In most cases, yes.  Still, even the most deadly viruses don’t have a perfect mortality rate, and given how viruses reproduce, it makes sense they’d leave traces of their own DNA in our genomes.  If they happened to infect reproductive cells, the traces of the virus might be perpetuated on through future generations.  At some point, the genes may actually become beneficial.  The gene that once caused the infection and eventual death of cells may become an essential part of it.  Although it makes perfect sense logically, it seems to go against common sense.  Viruses are harmful- how could they have helped us evolve?  It feels a bit like a study finding that the cure for cancer is a steady diet of only Mountain Dew and Doritos.  Sure, maybe, but you were expecting it to do more harm than good based on prior knowledge.

Armed with these new facts, scientists have begun to reconstruct old viruses.  This is a sticky subject.  The reconstructed viruses could assist in medical discoveries by showing how a virus may work, as the Phoenix virus did for HIV, and help track back the history of human evolution from a viral perspective.  However, it also brings up worries of bioterrorism, as does many reconstruction efforts of older pathogens.  Personally, I believe it is worth the risk.  Viruses have played an important part in shaping the human genome, and by studying the effects, we may be able to continue benefiting from viruses in the future.

 

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