Monday, December 03, 2007

Fascinating New Yorker Article "Darwin's Surprise"

Michael Specter's fascinating article on paleoviruses in the Dec. 3, 2007 issue of The New Yorker gave me ideas and provoked many questions as I read it. The article explains that paleoviruses are:

extinct viruses that reside within us, carrying a record that goes back millions of years.

[How can scientists know these viruses go back millions of years? I'm not challenging the statement, just wondering how they discovered that.]

As the article says, it turns out that scientists are now able to bring dead viruses back to life.

So one of my thoughts is: If they can do that, will scientists eventually be able to use that technology to bring dead people back to life?

Another sentence in the article says:

Eggs cannot eliminate waste.

Wouldn't that mean, then, that when we humans eat eggs, we are ingesting waste material?

The article says:

Cell fusion is a fundamental characteristic of the mammalian placenta but also, it turns out, of endogenous retroviruses. In fact, the protein syncytin, which causes placental cells to fuse together, employs the exact mechanism that enables retroviruses to latch on to the cells they infect.

Hmmm, that would make an awesome basis for a sci-fi movie!

And when Specter quotes the evolutionary geneticist Harmit Malik as saying:

"We have been in an evolutionary arms race with viruses for at least one million years. There is genetic conflict everywhere."

Well, wow--that would make an awesome educational video game, with characters based on those tiny biological elements that are in conflict.

The article goes on to say:

The AIDS virus has one gene, called "vif," that does nothing but block a protein whose sole job it is to stop the virus from making copies of itself.

So that makes me wonder why scientists have not been able to disable vif.

The article refers to Michael Emerman, a virologist at The Hutchinson Center's Human Biology and Basic Science Division, and his research with the H.I.V. virus and an endogenous retrovirus with the acronym PtERV that prevents chimpanzees from getting sick from AIDS:

What he found astonished him. No matter how many times he repeated the test, the results never varied. "In every case, the protein blocked either PtERV or H.I.V. But it never protected the cells from both viruses," Emerman said.

To me, that sounds like the uncertainty principle in physics, in which scientists can know either the direction a sub-atomic particle is moving in, or the speed the particle is traveling at, but never both. Since I'm not a scientist, I'm wondering if there is some connection between that concept in quantum physics and the results Emerman got.

"Viruses are accumulating and becoming more decrepit with every passing million years."

Well, I'm thinking: That would make one great T-shirt!

Finally, the article says that specific mutations seem to protect certain people against the H.I.V. virus:

There are people, though, whose genes instruct them to build defective receptors. Those with two copies of that defect, one from each parent, are resistant to H.I.V. infection no matter how often they are exposed to the virus.

So my question is: Are there any scientists working on ways to implant those genes into people who would benefit from them?

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