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Virolution [Paperback]

Frank Ryan
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

Jan. 6 2011 0007315120 978-0007315123

The extraordinary role of viruses in evolution and how this is revolutionising biology and medicine.

Darwin's theory of evolution is still the greatest breakthrough in biological science. His explanation of the role of natural selection in driving the evolution of life on earth depended on steady variation of living things over time – but he was unable to explain how this variation occurred. In the 150 years since publication of the Origin of Species, we have discovered three main sources for this variation – mutation, hybridisation and epigenetics. Then on Sunday, 12th February, 2001 the evidence for perhaps the most extraordinary cause of variation was simultaneously released by two organisations – the code for the entire human genome. Not only was the human genome unbelievably simple (it is only ten times more complicated than a bacteria), but embedded in the code were large fragments that were derived from viruses – fragments that were vital to evolution of all organisms and the evidence for a fourth and vital source of variation – viruses.

Virolution is the product of Dr Frank Ryan's decade of research at the frontiers of this new science – now called viral symbiosis – and the amazing revolution that it has had in these few years. As scientists begin to look for evidence of viral involvement in more and more processes, they have discovered that they are vital in nearly every case. And with this understanding comes the possibility of manipulating the role of the viruses to help fight a huge range of diseases.


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Review

‘Viruses aren't always harmful … Frank Ryan uses some beautiful examples to illustrate this idea. Worth reading.’
BBC Focus

About the Author

Frank Ryan is a consultant physician based in Sheffield, and an honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield. He is also an international best-selling writer. His book, Tuberculosis: The Greatest Story Never Told, was a New York Times Book of the Year while Darwin's Blind Spot was the 'Amazon Featured Book' recommended by Charlie Munger at the 2003 Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting. He pioneered the evolutionary concepts of 'viral symbiosis' and 'genomic creativity' and has contributed to the modern understanding of the evolution of the human genome. He is a Fellow of The Royal College of Physicians, the Royal Society of Medicine and the Linnean Society of London.


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4.0 out of 5 stars Thought provoking stuff! Nov. 6 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is great material for anyone interested in either evolution or viruses, or just in cutting edge biology. Well-told; scientific without being a textbook, so we lay folk can appreciate it.
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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  11 reviews
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The startling (and scary) role played by viruses in biological evolution May 1 2011
By Dennis Littrell - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
A major thesis of this amazing book is that plants and animals including most significantly humans co-evolve with viruses. The term "virolution," presumably coined by Dr. Ryan, who is both a physician and an evolutionary biologist, comes from the words "virus" and "evolution" but also suggests the word "revolution." The idea is that instead of being merely agents of pathology, viruses can also work together with their host to help it survive. Ryan gives the example of grey squirrels imported from America invading the territory of red squirrels in Britain. He writes:

"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
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Somewhat disappointed with Virolution by Frank Ryan July 28 2011
By Stephen J. Wylie - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The opening chapters were interesting, if somewhat old news, about endogenous retroviruses and their possible roles in directing human evolution. There was interesting background into Darwin and Wallace, DNA discovery, virus epidemics. There were a number of passages that I underlined as interesting. The problems began when large screeds of padding were encountered in the shape of tedious, often seemingly irrelevant, verbatim conversations the author has had with scientists, conference presentations, numerous (irrelevant) references to his previous books, facts about mitochondria and chloroplasts that were revealed decades ago, three chapters on human disease that may be linked to human endogenous retroviruses (HERV), and gene expression mechanisms (with an emphasis on epigenetic means) that appear unrelated to the presence of HERVs.

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!
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Book for the General Reader July 8 2011
By R. Schwenk - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Frank Ryan skillfully presents complex material in an engaging way. The science is up-to-date, and every chapter presents so many new ideas that the mind reels, in a good way.

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.
5.0 out of 5 stars If you only ever read one book about evolution... March 20 2014
By Atticplan - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
...well, you should really read more than one, but if you only read one, let it be this one. For starters, it's a great survey of some of the more complex, and less-discussed avenues of evolution, the genome, and viruses. It focuses on the subtle ways in which DNA mutations come about, with a particular emphasis on symbiosis and the 9 percent of our genome that comes from endogenous retroviruses and also goes into the more mysterious 34 percent of the genome consisting of LINEs and SINEs, some of which are virus-associated. It's very eye-opening and really needs to be read.
5.0 out of 5 stars Multi-causality in evolution affirmed Sept. 11 2013
By aldo matteucci - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Darwin guessed that descent with modification drove evolution. He was right, even though he was looking through a very dark glass. This picture is not wrong, but seriously incomplete. Darwin would be delighted in finding mechanisms complementing and supplementing his conjecture.

This book sums up available evidence for evolutionary change - what the author calls "genomic creativity". They are (a) mutation (the Darwinian conjecture); (b) genetic symbiogenesis (which includes a large contribution from viruses); (c) hybridogenesis; (d) epigenetics. In this view evolution has many causes. Far from occasional and slow, it is relentless. The various sources of creativity may interact, co-evolve, whatever. Nothing is simple, and nothing is mono-causal any more. The balance between change and selection shifts drastically towards change.

I only have a regret - the author did not bring into his synthesis exaptation as well. This fundamental mechanism to me fits perfectly into his overall scheme of genomic creativity.

The portrait is impressive. Of course, it is work in progress, so we'll see erasures, additions, pentimentoes, and what else. The foremost thing is to see the scope of evolutionary change. This book is a landmark not so much for the novelty, but for having brought so much knowledge together.

This book also heralds a novel way of doing science: the meta-researcher has entered the scene. Scientists that plumb the complexity of life seldom have the time, and the ability to bring disparate areas of research together into a coherent mind-map. Preoccupation with the all-important details eats away at the capacity for synthesis. We'll need people who only look at the "big picture". Dr. Ryan is a fore-runner.

The most intriguing and arresting part of the book, of course, is the likely role of viruses in evolution. The author's summing up of the state of the art is mind-boggling even if one discounts some of the claims, or puts question marks behind this or that conjecture. To understand the true role of viruses one has to shift from a "Virus-as-parasite" to a "Virus-as-symbiont" worldview. This is far from easy, and I suspect it will take time for many to become comfortable with this alternative way of looking at the vira.

Yes, I could have done without the interviews he describes - one wants to learn; for entertainment I'll go elsewhere. Yes, the first couple of chapters are hesitant. Persevere, and you will soon be captivated.
One criticism: The subtitle may have been chosen for marketing purposes, but it does the book disservice. Dawkins' "selfish gene" was a non-starter from the beginning. Its success owes more to the prevalent egotistically inclined Zeitgeist than to science. With 20'000 genes altogether in one phenotype, and exposed to an ever changing environment, it takes a lot of abstraction to imagine that one gene will impose its will systematically (the alpha-bully usually ends up on the dust-heap of evolution following the coalition of betas). Of course, this "selection by one gene alone" harks back to Darwin, who was looking at the selection process through the eyes of the pigeon breeder. He could select for just one gene (though he probably did not, for he was aware of the trade-offs between characteristics). In nature the selection game is played as an ever changing team.

Alas, Dawkins' "meme" called "selfish gene" has moved into the social sciences, where it is creating havoc worse than smallpox. After "physics envy" we have "gene envy." As for "meme" it is a false analogy. Genes are particulate, and ideas blend. It is ironic, is it not, that Darwin's error in explaining descent is repeated, symmetrically, with regard to the evolution of culture.
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