In fact, in October, French researchers announced fi ndings that illustrate afresh just how close some viruses might come. Didier Raoult and his colleagues at the University of the Mediterranean in Marseille announced that they had sequenced the genome of the largest known virus, Mimivirus, which was discovered in 1992. The virus, about the same size as a small bacterium, infects amoebae. Sequence analysis of the virus revealed numerous genes previously thought to exist only in cellular organisms. Some of these genes are involved in making the proteins encoded by the viral DNA and may make it easier for Mimivirus to co-opt host cell replication systems. As the research team noted in its report in the journal Science, the enormous complexity of the Mimivirus’s genetic complement “challenges the established frontier between viruses and parasitic cellular organisms.”
Impact on Evolution
Debates over whether to label viruses as living lead naturally to another question: Is pondering the status of viruses as living or nonliving more than a philosophical exercise, the basis of a lively and heated rhetorical debate but with little real consequence? I think the issue is important, because how scientists regard this question infl uences their thinking about the mechanisms of evolution.
Viruses have their own, ancient evolutionary history, dating to the very origin of cellular life. For example, some viral- repair enzymes—which excise and resynthesize damaged DNA, mend oxygen radical damage, and so on— are unique to certain viruses and have existed almost unchanged probably for billions of years.
Nevertheless, most evolutionary biologists hold that because viruses are not alive, they are unworthy of serious consideration when trying to understand evolution. They also look on viruses as coming from host genes that somehow escaped the host and acquired a protein coat. In this view, viruses are fugitive host genes that have degenerated into parasites. And with viruses thus dismissed from the web of life, important contributions they may have made to the origin of species and the maintenance of life may go unrecognized. (Indeed, only four of the 1,205 pages of the 2002 volume The Encyclopedia of Evolution are devoted to viruses.)
Of course, evolutionary biologists do not deny that viruses have had some role in evolution. But by viewing viruses as inanimate, these investigators place them in the same category of infl uences as, say, climate change. Such external infl uences select among individuals having varied, genetically controlled traits; those individuals most able to survive and thrive when faced with these challenges go on to reproduce most successfully and hence spread their genes to future generations.
But viruses directly exchange genetic information with living organisms—that is, within the web of life itself. A possible surprise to most physicians, and perhaps to most evolutionary biologists as well, is that most known viruses are persistent and innocuous, not pathogenic. They take up residence in cells, where they may remain dormant for long periods or take advantage of the cells’ replication apparatus to reproduce at a slow and steady rate. These viruses have developed many clever ways to avoid detection by the host immune system— essentially every step in the immune process can be altered or controlled by various genes found in one virus or another.
Furthermore, a virus genome (the entire complement of DNA or RNA) can permanently colonize its host, adding viral genes to host lineages and ultimately becoming a critical part of the host species’ genome. Viruses therefore surely have effects that are faster and more direct than those of external forces that simply select among more slowly generated, internal genetic variations. The huge population of viruses, combined with their rapid rates of replication and mutation, makes them the world’s leading source of genetic innovation: they constantly “invent” new genes. And unique genes of viral origin may travel, finding their way into other organisms and contributing to evolutionary change.