I Owe My Life To Viruses

As ironic and paradoxical as my statement may be, it’s true. My entire life I’ve thought of viruses as dangerous: they’re these little particles that go into your body like a pirate and overthrow your cell’s command center and then reproduce thousands of times. Then they repeat the process over and over again till you as an organism are in danger of death. However, after reading this article and a fateful AP Biology class, I learned that viruses are, along with mutations, the driving point of evolution. That knowledge would have stunned Charles Darwin.

Charles Darwin didn’t even have an idea of microevolution; he didn’t know anything about genomes. All of the work he put forth were based on phenotypic patterns that he could see. How stunned would he be to see the mechanisms at which they’re all at play? However, this article puts forth more than the idea of DNA as the genetic code. It asserts the fact that virus DNA has been embedded into our DNA–endogenous retroviruses–and are responsible for what makes us who we are today: ‘“If charles Darwin reappeared today, he might be surprised to learn that humans descended from viruses as well as from apes”’ (Weiss). How could Darwin ever imagine that possibility?

Charles Darwin would be amazed by a lot of things if he were alive at the present time just due to the fact of time and technological innovation. I found myself most amazed at the possibility of resurrecting endogenous viruses and what that tells us about the environmental pressures the animal or creature faced. My major in college is Biology and Society where I try to meld all aspects of the circumstance someone is facing and I can easily see how resurrecting endogenous viruses could be something within my field. However, I won’t lie. I am in fear of what might happen if we resurrect the wrong virus and it somehow spreads to the population and causes a pandemic. That however, is probably a bias the hollywood dramatization effect has given me. With the right precautions, resurrecting these viruses could tell us so much. They’re clearly worth the trouble in my mind.

While I am stunned at the idea of resurrecting endogenous viruses as a means of seeing how they work to develop therapies for some viruses like HIV now and as means for plotting a timeline in human history, I think I’m more stunned by how I wouldn’t exist without them. I owe my life to viruses. The article states that the placenta is lined with the genome of the virus and probably evolved due to infection of an early human. Without endogenous retroviruses, human beings might still be laying eggs according to the article. We wouldn’t be the same species. Without the time we spend in the womb with the extra protection and nutrients the placenta provides, how brains would have never developed the way they did. We would have never been able to accomplish all we did as a species without the help of viruses. I wouldn’t be typing this blog post out on a computer; I wouldn’t be going to school everyday to further educate myself; I wouldn’t even understand how big the world is past my own habitat. The thought of being unable to use my mind is a thought I can’t fathom.

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