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Virolution Paperback – Jan 6 2011
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‘Viruses aren't always harmful … Frank Ryan uses some beautiful examples to illustrate this idea. Worth reading.’
About the Author
Dr Frank Ryan is a consultant physician and the bestselling author of Tuberculosis: The Greatest Story Never Told.
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An entire chapter is devoted to epigenetics, which is referred to as the 'Genie'. The author struggles unsuccessfully to find a link between epigenetic gene expression and HERVs. One of the epigenetic mechanisms described, RNA interference, RNAi, is a significant means by which plants destroy invading viruses, yet the author appears not to be familiar with this phenomenon. Is it because it is unrelated to retroviruses?
There is very little mention made of the vast majority of non-retroviral viruses that inflict organisms and their contribution to evolution. Sure, many ancient retroviruses reside in our genomes, but the vast majority are inactive and do not appear to be actively expressed. Frank Ryan was not the first person to point this out. The impression I got was the author considers himself as a lone crusader convincing the scientific world that HERVs matter. The frequently made claim that most biologists are unaware of HERVs and their potential and actual roles is patently incorrect. A quick search on google scholar using the words "human endogenous retrovirus" gave ~15,000 hits on this subject published in 2010 and 2011 alone.
The author is not a virologist. He describes himself as a consultant physician. His research specialty is nutrition and gastroenterology, which might explain some of the obvious omissions in the book. The main message of the book, that HERVs played a role in human evolution could have been eloquently explained in one chapter. But one chapter a book does not make! The rest is padding, most irrelevant to the title, but nevertheless of possible interest to the lay reader. Virolution's main contribution is to cobble together some of the information on this topic and to present it quite lucidly. It's failing is what is missing. It is certainly not in the ballpark of the most important book since Dawkin's Selfish Gene! And, what a zebra-striped gorilla is doing on the front cover is anyone's guess!
"At first naturalists assumed that the grey squirrel was winning the survival battle because it was larger and more aggressive than the native counterpart, but now we know that the grey squirrel is carrying a squirrel pox virus that causes no disease symptoms in its symbiotic partner but appears to be lethal to the red squirrel." (p. 96)
In other words what we have here is war by an organism's own viral pathogens! Survival of the fittest may include carrying around lethal viruses that can wipe out your ecological competition. Ryan notes "We believe that HIV-1, the main virus of AIDS, was transferred to people from a specific group of chimpanzees. We also know that, in chimpanzees, HIV-1 grows freely and reproduces in their internal organs and tissues, but it causes no evidence of disease." (p. 86)
So what apparently happened is some bush meat eaters shot some chimps, ate and/or sold the meat and humans got the virus. Revenge of the dead chimp! Well, perhaps. But look at it this way. Imagine humans in prehistory or even humans a few centuries ago in the Congo jungle looking to take over some chimp territory. After some close contact, the virus jumps from the chimps to humans and the humans die. Survival of the fittest!
Ryan refers to this as an example of "aggressive symbiosis," and this is how it works in general: two similar species occupying similar ecological niches come into contact. Which is to prevail? One carries a virus like a loaded gun in its tissues. The virus jumps to the other species and typically is extraordinarily virulent and kills them. Or perhaps there is a dueling of viruses, one from each species. At some point the only survivors are those with immunity to the viruses.
Ryan makes a further point with this example (quoting Max Essex on the deliberate use of a myxomatosis virus to kill rabbits in Australia): "The...virus killed...some 99.8% of the rabbits. But then two things happened. Number one - within four years, the resistant minority grew so you had a different population of disease-resistant rabbits... And number two - the myxomatosis virus that remained [as a persistent infection in the rabbits] was less virulent, so I think there is crystal-clear evidence that both the host and the virus attenuated themselves for optimal survival in that situation." Furthermore (and this brings us back to the previous point), any new rabbits brought in would be at a disadvantage because they would have no immunity to the virus and the surviving rabbits would. (pp. 87-88)
In other words looked at from an evolutionary perspective, host and virus worked together in a mutualistic symbiosis. In my mind this raises the question, what really did happen to the Neanderthal? We do know what happened to the natives of the Americas when they came into contact with the smallpox virus carried by the Europeans. Could a virus from homo sapiens have wiped out the Neanderthal, or at least helped humans become the sole hominid survivors?
In the largest sense, this idea of host and virus working together would seem to be more powerful than any kind of sharp tooth and massive claw in the struggle for survival. The old idea of survival of the fittest must now be seen in a different light. I have said for many years that "everything works toward an ecology" and "everything works toward a symbiosis," meaning that in a typical environment, if one species is able to work together with another, they may enjoy an advantage over rivals. Consequently, those species that are able to form symbiotic relationships are the ones more likely to survive. What this means for evolutionary theory, as Dr. Ryan has pointed out, is that symbiosis is a much more important part of evolutionary biology than has previously been thought. My guess is that the revolution begun by Lynn Margulis, who first saw the eukaryotic cell as a mutualistic development from parasitic relationships, will be accelerated by the work of Ryan and others to the point where the prevailing view from evolutionists will be that it is cooperation rather than competition that most characterizes fitness.
And that is what makes this book so important. It signals a great shift in our understanding of how evolution works.
But that is not all. Ryan shows that the so-called "junk DNA" in genomes is anything but. Much of it is viral ("endogenous retroviruses") and it is there as evidence that humans and pre-humans went through many periods of aggressive symbiosis including the horrid plague stage. We now see that plagues, from an evolutionary perspective, are common and part of how the evolutionary process formed us. Furthermore Ryan writes about how viral genes can help with the development of the embryo in the womb. In other words, viral DNA in part directs the protein building that makes for human beings, and indeed for many forms of life.
In the latter parts of the book Ryan explores the role of viruses in autoimmune diseases and cancer. He also considers the role of hybridization in evolutionary change and that of epigenetics. Particularly interesting is the work of Eva Jablonka and Marion J. Lamb that suggests that "new species might arise through the inheritance of acquired epigenetic changes," causing Ryan to remark, "they were resurrecting the long-discredited spectre of Lamarckian evolution." (p. 312)
The book is dense, difficult and perhaps revolutionary in scope.
(Note: this review and many others can be found in my book, "Understanding Evolution and Ourselves," reviews by Dennis Littrell now available on Amazon.)
Understanding Evolution and Ourselves
Here is a brief taste of some of the key ideas presented. There are four creative forces in evolution, creative in that they cause changes to genes or their expression:
1) Mutation (this is the only source of variability in what is currently called neo-Darwinism)
2) Genetic Symbiogenesis (symbiotic organisms co-evolve, including the transfer of pre-evolved genes from one genome to another)
3) Hybridogenesis (hybrids merge their genetic material)
4) Epigenetic (changes in gene expression not arising from the genome)
The latter three are new ideas that have only been accepted as plausible by the scientific community in the last two decades. We may be seeing a paradigm shift (see Kuhn The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) in progress. Epigenetics is not only a promising field for the treatment of diseases like cancer or MS, it raises the ghost of Lamarck in that it proposes that, sometimes, environmentally acquired changes can be inherited (see Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life (Life and Mind: Philosophical Issues in Biology and Psychology)).
We can only hope that Dr. Ryan provides us with another such book every few years.
This book has changed my whole perception of life, especially viruses and bacteria. I now have come to the conclusion heavily influenced by Frank Ryan that humans are simply host to the most successful life forms in the cosmos - viruses and bacteria.
I also see now how this book complements the great works of Sir Fred Hoyle and Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe who first hypothesized that "Life is a Cosmic Phenomenon". Although their book "Viruses from Space" was written many years ago, Frank Ryan now provides the keys to why it is possible "long period" comets (> 100,000 years) likely have delivered viruses and bacteria inside the watery centres of the comets.
Next month Rosetta lands on Comet 67P/C-G but the experiments Philae will perform will alas not give us virus or bacterial detection which is what is ideal and needed. Perhaps the advanced ALMA spectroscopy will surprise us.
It is unlikely we can land on a long period comet like Comet ISON (last year) which is much more likely to carry inbound viruses from adjacent stars. NASA experts like Chris McKay now accept that Panspermia is mainstream science and the new NASA overall mission is moving from the "Search for Water" to "Starting the difficult endeavor of seeking the signs of life".
Remote detection of viruses is an important skill we need to perfect. We have the work of Milton Wainwright in the stratosphere, work of the Russians on the outside of the ISS, and all the planned missions to Mars, Enceladus and Europa. But what a challenge to cope with the contamination we have already caused.
Frank Ryan's book really helps anyone interested in Astrobiology advance their knowledge of viruses. For them it will be compelling reading.
The "20th century" conception of evolution is (was): It's driven by random mutations and natural selection, and natural selection has the effect of making genes *appear* to be selfish. The last 50 years of research have shown that far from being random, these mutations are systematic, driven by processes like transposition, symbiogenesis and horizontal gene transfer.
Virolution adds the systematic behavior of viruses to the mix, showing how they then become symbiotic: That rather than a "host/parasite" relationship, and rather than being purely destructive, organisms use the viruses just as much as the viruses use the organisms. Ryan explains how major organelles (such as a component of the mammalian placenta) evolved in similar fashion - but separately, all of them co-opting code from viruses.
He shows how the assumption that endogenous retroviruses were so much evolutionary garbage, i.e. "Junk DNA", caused us to overlook major insights that have critical importance to the study of disease.
Virolution adds considerable heft to the theory of symbiogenesis, extending it to a whole new realm. I've read over 100 books on evolution and this one's on my top 10 list. My other faves include Shapiro's "Evolution: a View from the 21st Century," "Acquiring Genomes" by Margulis, "In the Beginning was Information" by Gitt, "The Great Evolution Mystery" by Taylor, "Information Theory, Evolution and the Origin of Life" by Yockey, "A Feeling for the Organism" by Keller, and "Altenberg 16" by Mazur.
This book is a major contribution and despite the cover, it doesn't even be deserved to be compared to Dawkins' selfish gene because frankly Dawkins is overrated, being neither as good of a scientist nor as intellectually honest as Ryan. This book illustrates the fact that unabashed, real-world biology is like the TV Series "24": You can never quite imagine what strange twist is coming around the next corner.
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