Paleovirology: Befriending Humanity’s Most Persistent Enemy

“In the practice of tolerance, one’s enemy is the best teacher.” 

-Dalai Lama

I almost got up to wash my hands when I reached the description of the Institut Gustave Roussy’s “museum of genetic catastrophe”: vials and beakers of age-old parasites stewing together behind walls of glass. Soon, my immediate fear transitioned into the same childish wonder stories like Frankenstein and Jurassic Park so easily inspire, but as I continued on still, I realized that Paleovirology, far from mere science fiction or Blockbuster fanfare represented one of the most ferociously practical and innovative fields of burgeoning research I had ever heard of.  

To satisfy the Miles Allen who was scared to touch literally anything after seeing the movie Contagion, I must still urge researchers to be careful with this stuff. For example, I would not be too happy if a careless scientists started walking around freely with their favorite pathogens in uncapped beakers. With that said,  this research is the most exciting thing I’ve learned about all year. The study of endogenous viruses may very well be the best way to face, as the article quotes, the most “persistent threat” to humanity on our own terms and create countless other invaluable opportunities in the process. Yes, we risk making new techniques for biological terrorism more pervasive, but with scientific innovation, there are never very many secrets that can be kept for too long anyways. At least with this research, our strategy for dealing with “genetic catastrophe” may be prophylactic, rather than reactionary. With a wave of anti-scientific, shortsighted, nationalist, self-centered thought washing over political landscapes across the globe, scientific projects like these are not only at risk, but may serve as the kind of common interest that unite resources and passions in the progressive realm of the sciences. Enucleating eggs may be controversial, but Life Insurance for the human race —who’d say no to that? Already, research in this relatively new field has advanced our knowledge regarding one of our time’s most pressing problems: the spread of HIV. Through projects like the creation and analysis of the Phoenix Virus and study of PtERV — specifically researchers’ correlating of endogenous PtERV fragments in chimps with their resistance to HIV — we have learned how resistances and susceptibilities across different viruses are related: while we win some molecular battles, we lose others.

And this is only HIV. Because viruses, especially retroviruses, evolve so rapidly, I would imagine there are countless opportunities for fruitful studies of this kind, which might further biological knowledge of ourselves. 

This project, however, has the potential to reinvigorate people’s enthusiasm in the sciences, not only because of its practical use as a defense against future pandemics, but also for its strong connection to — as Heidmann suggests — our origins and evolution as a species. I don’t believe, after all, that Darwin could be the only one surprised to know that viruses serve such a prominent role in making us who we are. I’m still not over the fact that a functional retrovirus was programmed to cover the placenta in which I was born.

The possible ramifications of these findings are dazzling. I imagine that if certain identifiable viral fragments can be compared and contrasted across certain species (every vertebrate, in fact) or throughout our species, then we have a new way of looking into the past, learning who lived where, and possibly — using historical info in conjunction with this new research — when and where the creatures of the Earth contacted one another in our history. Not only does this allow us to study previously inscrutable periods and events in our past, but it also provides opportunities with which we may learn about the evolution of our species, exactly how and why we are ourselves. I suspect the Human Genome Project has already done quite a bit of that, but through the lens of Paleovirology that study comes to life biologically in that we have epidemics, historical events, recorded into our DNA along with tools to even determine where they occurred.  

Research of endogenous viruses holds obvious weight in the analysis and reconstruction of our past, and it’s applications for fighting some of our most pressing problems are clear, but it was the article’s last claim that excites me the most: the role these viruses play in the evolution of our species throughout the coming thousands and — fingers crossed — millions of years might determine what our species will be like and might determine whether those humans may still be considered Homo Sapiens. 

As my opinion of viruses shifted from fear to a newfound reverence, I began to understand for how much we have to thank our viral archenemies. It certainly can be difficult to do, and sometimes impossible, but such flourishing sources of knowledge suggest how much we can learn from those things which challenge us the most. 

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