Sunday, February 19, 2006
[evomech] Unintelligent Design: A monstrous discovery suggests that viruses..
A monstrous discovery suggests that viruses, long regarded as lowly evolutionary latecomers, may have been the precursors of all life on Earth
Few things on Earth are spookier than viruses. The very name virus, from the Latin word for "poisonous slime," speaks to our lowly regard for them...
...Now, with the recent discovery of a truly monstrous virus, scientists are again casting about for how best to characterize these spectral life-forms. The new virus, officially known as Mimivirus (because it mimics a bacterium), is a creature "so bizarre," as The London Telegraph described it, "and unlike anything else seen by scientists . . . that . . . it could qualify for a new domain in the tree of life." Indeed, Mimivirus is so much more genetically complex than all previously known viruses, not to mention a number of bacteria, that it seems to call for a dramatic redrawing of the tree of life...
...Viruses, long thought to be biology's hitchhikers, turn out to have been biology's formative force. This is striking news, especially at a moment when the basic facts of origins and evolution seem to have fallen under a shroud. In the discussions of intelligent design, one hears a yearning for an old-fashioned creation story, in which some singular, inchoate entity stepped in to give rise to complex life-forms - humans in particular. Now the viruses appear to present a creation story of their own: a stirring, topsy-turvy, and decidedly unintelligent design wherein life arose more by reckless accident than original intent...
...The discovery of Mimivirus lends weight to one of the more compelling theories discussed at Les Treilles. Back when the three domains of life were emerging, a large DNA virus very much like Mimi may have made its way inside a bacterium or an archaean and, rather than killing it, harmlessly persisted there. The eukaryotic cell nucleus and large, complex DNA viruses like Mimi share a compelling number of biological traits. They both replicate in the cell cytoplasm, and on doing so, each uses the same machinery within the cytoplasm to form a new membrane around itself. They both have certain enzymes for capping messenger RNA, and they both have linear chromosomes rather than the circular ones typically found in a bacterium. "If this is true," Forterre has said of the viral-nucleus hypothesis, "then we are all basically descended from viruses."...
...We have been looking for our designer in all the wrong places. It seems we owe our existence to viruses, the least of semiliving forms, and about the only thing they have in common with any sort of theological prime mover is their omnipresence and invisibility. Once again, viruses have altered the way that we view them and, by extension, ourselves. As it turns out, they are not the little breakaway shards of our biology - we are, of theirs.
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See also: The Animal Self (New York Times)
Model of an Internal Evolutionary Mechanism:
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