When the mapping of the human genome was completed in 2003, researchers discovered a shocking fact: our bodies are littered with the shards of retroviruses, fragments of the chemical code from which all genetic material is made. This discovery has created a new discipline, paleovirology, which seeks to better understand the impact of modern diseases by studying the genetic history of ancient viruses.
Endogenous retroviruses, however, once they infect the DNA of a species they become part of that species: they reside within each of us, carrying a record that goes back millions of years. Molecular battles of endogenous retroviruses that raged for thousands of generations, have been defeated by evolution.
These viral fragments are fossils that reside within each of us, carrying a record that goes back millions of years. Because they no longer seem to serve a purpose or cause harm, these remnants have often been referred to as “junk DNA.” Although many of these evolutionary relics still manage to generate proteins, scientists have never found one that functions properly in humans or that could make us sick.
That is until Thierry Heidmann who runs the laboratory at the Institut Gustave Roussy, on the southern edge of Paris, brought one to life. Heidmann long suspected that if a retrovirus happens to infect a human sperm cell or egg, which is rare, and if that embryo survives—which is rarer still—the retrovirus could have the evolutionary power to influence humans as a species becoming part of the genetic blueprint, passed from mother to child, and from one generation to the next, much like a gene for eye color or asthma.
In a brilliant essay in The New Yorker, author Michael Specter brought Heidmann's discovery to life, showing how by "combining the tools of genomics, virology, and evolutionary biology, he and his colleagues took a virus that had been extinct for hundreds of thousands of years, figured out how the broken parts were originally aligned, and then pieced them together. After resurrecting the virus, the team placed it in human cells and found that their creation did indeed insert itself into the DNA of those cells. They also mixed the virus with cells taken from hamsters and cats. It quickly infected them all, offering the first evidence that the broken parts could once again be made infectious. The experiment could provide vital clues about how viruses like H.I.V. work. Inevitably, though, it also conjures images of Frankenstein’s monster and Jurassic Park."
Heidmann named the virus Phoenix, after the mythical bird that rises from the ashes, because he is convinced that this virus and others like it have much to tell about the origins and the evolution of humanity.
“This is something not to fear but to celebrate,’’ Heidmann told Specter one day as they sat in his office at the institute, which is dedicated to the treatment and eradication of cancer.“What is remarkable here, and unique, is the fact that endogenous retroviruses are two things at once: genes and viruses. And those viruses helped make us who we are today just as surely as other genes did. I am not certain that we would have survived as a species without them. The Phoenix virus sheds light on how H.I.V. operates, but, more than that, on how we operate, and how we evolved. Many people study other aspects of human evolution—how we came to walk, or the meaning of domesticated animals. But I would argue that equally important is the role of pathogens in shaping the way we are today. Look, for instance, at the process of pregnancy and birth.’’
Heidmann believes that without endogenous retroviruses mammals might never have developed a placenta, which protects the fetus and gives it time to mature, which eventually led to live birth, one of the hallmarks of human evolutionary success over birds, reptiles, and fish. Eggs cannot eliminate waste or draw the maternal nutrients required to develop the large brains that have made mammals so versatile. “These viruses made those changes possible. It is quite possible that, without them, human beings would still be laying eggs.”
Posted by Casey Kazan. New Yorker Article Link: Darwin's Surprise
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