Darwin’s Surprise – Response

This article is almost too far out to be titled “Darwin’s Surprise”  – Darwin didn’t know what our genetic material is, let alone that viruses exist or how they affect our genome. That being said, it is probably titled as such in reference to how our DNA is altered by the viral infection of egg and sperm cells. This mechanism by which our DNA is changed and therefore we evolve is one of the very few outside of those first understood by Darwin himself. He might be most surprised by the implications of the facts that less than 2% of our genome constitutes the portion which is read to create vital proteins for our body, while 8% is “composed of broken and disabled retroviruses, which, millions of years ago, managed to embed themselves in the DNA of our ancestors.” This shows how significantly our evolution has been impacted by something outside of solely genes passed down from parents. This is furthered with discoveries about the functional differences viral DNA has made, especially how it has led to placentas in mammals and evolved complex mechanisms to fight the addition of additional viral DNA.

I found what the scientists at Koronis Pharmaceuticals are doing to be the most interesting. In response to the question, “how can HIV be stopped,” I have (I think) only heard to inject synthesized proteins specific to the particular virus which inhibit some portion of its reproductive cycle. Rather than this, “they hope that by speeding up the life cycle of the AIDs virus they can drive it to extinction. The goal is to accelerate the virus’s already rapid pace of mutation to the point where it produces such an enormous number of errors in its genome that it ceases to pose a threat.” This concept is the most interesting to me out of everything in this article I hadn’t yet learned or imagined. I find it almost funny that this could turn out to be an effective method because the virus’s ‘goal’ is already to reproduce as frequently as possible to infect cells of the immune system.

Throughout, the article suggests that viruses have played an integral part in evolution – neither humans nor any other organism would be genetically the same without viruses, and the same is very likely true of our and their function. Despite the connotation of viruses being negative both historically and today (and with good reason – they have been a widespread cause of suffering and death for thousands of years),  even just the development of the placenta makes their impact on us worth it. I already had some understanding that viruses permanently added their genetic information to our genome, but did not have any of the depth of knowledge or the implications provided by this article, so I would say it definitely changed my understanding of viruses.

In general, I think science should absolutely reassemble extinct viruses where something can be learned and applied to our collective knowledge of viruses today. That being said, I agree with Harmit Malik when he says, “If you can’t apply the knowledge, you shouldn’t do the experiment.” In areas of science that are inherently risky, such as, say, the recreation of horribly contagious viruses, I think that experiments and research should probably be limited to being done by those who can be safe about it and have an application in mind.

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