Viruses can be very dangerous agents indeed. When a virus enters an organism, it migrates to the centres of the cells of that organism. At the centre of each cell in a living creature is its nucleus, containing that cell’s DNA, its library of instructions for functioning. The virus wants to get into that library. Once the virus does enter that library, it adds its own instructions to the cell’s list of instructions. These new instructions tell the cell to make more of that virus, more and more until the cell is so stuffed with copies of the virus that it bursts open, spilling out all those newly-made copies. All those newly made viruses then migrate to other cells in the organism and the process continues. Some virus invasions can be stopped by a creature’s immune system with only mild harm to the host organism, such as a common cold. In the case of other viruses, like Ebola, the damage the virus inflicts on a human host is enough to kill them.
But recent research shows that the view of viruses as simply dangerous parasites is not the whole story. For example, viruses can also be a species’ weapon of defence. The Ebola virus circulates in fruit bats without harming the bats. Up to now, this fact has been regarded as mostly luck on the part of the bats, but there may be a more sophisticated reason. The Ebola virus can been seen as a defensive weapon that fruit bats store within themselves. They keep the virus alive for possible use as a defensive weapon. If the fruit bats are preyed upon by another species, the Ebola virus within them can leap across and attack that predator. Ebola, in this way, is a fruit bat defence. Tragically for many people in West Africa, the popularity of bushmeat - jungle animals as food - has unleashed this defensive weapon of appalling potency.
“Viruses may be responsible for the very existence of multicellular organisms. Viruses come and go between different cells, exchanging genetic information between them. This makes me think that viruses have contributed enormously to the communication between cells, and to the appearance of multicellular organisms on Earth.”
If this is true, then viruses aren’t just blighting parasites. Instead, they’ve aided evolution. Without viruses, there would be nothing living on this planet apart from simple, unicellular organisms such as bacteria and amoeba.
Darwin’s theory explained where all the animals and plants had come from and how the Earth contained such a vast menagerie of life. But there has always been a niggling problem with Darwin’s theory. DNA replication is extremely accurate and the vast majority of random mutations have a negative effect on an organism. Also, if a single creature is born with a random mutation, it is the only one with that mutation. If it produces offspring, those offspring may not inherit the change at all. Thirdly, the mutation must occur in the egg or sperm before the creature was born, as this would be the only way for a random mutation to present throughout the creature’s body. All these factors make evolution through random mutation an incredibly slow process. It is fast enough to produce finches on the Galapagos Islands with different shaped beaks, but is it quick enough to explain the rise of mammals, or even insects?
But there is a strange problem with our human development from chimpanzees; how fast it happened. In only twenty-million years, our species split from the macaque group of monkeys and reached our current state. A recent paper written by scientists at the University of Chicago studied how many genes must have been involved just for our brains to have enlarged from macaques to our current size. As the authors say in their introduction:
Human evolution is characterised by a dramatic increase in brain size and complexity. To probe its genetic basis, we examined the evolution of genes involved in diverse aspects of nervous system biology. We found that these genes display significantly higher rates of protein evolution in primates than in rodents. Importantly, this trend is most pronounced for the subset of genes implicated in nervous system development. Moreover, within primates, the acceleration of protein evolution is most prominent in the lineage leading from ancestral primates to humans. Thus, the remarkable phenotypic evolution of the human nervous system has a salient molecular correlate, i.e., accelerated evolution of the underlying genes, particularly those linked to nervous system development.
It is remarkable that our species has evolved this fast, and gained a whole host of new genes that collectively give us our unique and impressive abilities and properties. As Bruce Lahn, one the paper's authors, goes on to say in a later interview, "It is nothing short of spectacular that so many mutations in so many genes were acquired during the mere 20-25 million years of time in the evolutionary lineage leading to humans." It may be that such a process can naturally work at this rate, possibly involving epigenetics as well as random mutation, but there are other possibilities.
For example, a specifically constructed virus has the potential to cause evolutionary change in a target species thousands or millions of times faster than a random mutation. A tailored virus, once it enter an ecosystem, can insert new genetic code into most members of a species in one season. If the virus is constructed to be as contagious as flu, but also carry the mechanism to make specific genetic alterations to its hosts’ cells, the majority of that host species would have the new genetic codes as fast as flu travels around our planet. A change that might have taken a million years through random mutation would be completed in one generation by that tailored virus. In this way, specifically constructed viruses are an extremely powerful tool for forcibly evolving a target species in a chosen way. The next question becomes; what if an intelligent species began making these viruses?
We, as a species, have come a long way in the last few centuries. We can now, for example, alter the genetic code of cells. It’s clear that we’ll be able to create our own tailored viruses fairly soon. Once we have this ability, we may decide to play God. We might decide to create a virus that would assist the evolution of primitive life on another planet. We may, in the next century, simple, unicellular life on Mars or Titan or Enceladus and decide to advance life on those moons by sending tailored viruses to them that we have designed to infect those primitive life-forms and advance them in specific ways. We could impregnate these tailored viruses in hardy bacteria hosts, like spacemen in ships, and propel those hardy bacteria through space at the target planet, possibly by coating them so that they could be propelled by a laser beam. Given sufficient time, we might, as a result, change that target moon or planet from hosting a few patches of slime-mould to become a ecosystem of advanced, multicellular creatures.
If we succeeded in doing that, we might take the next logical step and carry out such a program of guided evolution on a planet around another star. As bacteria are tiny and hardy, they could theoretically survive a journey between the stars. Although the vast majority of the bacteria ‘ships’ would be lost en route to the nearby star, a small fraction could reach the target planet intact. Once they were there, the viruses within them could infect life on that planet. A viral infection of our bodies can start with only a single virus particle, and so only a handful of virus packets would need to successfully infect life on the alien planet to make that guided evolution process work. Even if only one virus infected a target organism on the target planet, it would be enough to spread its gene-altering code to life on the entire planet.
We might not even stop at one remote planet. We might accelerate evolution on the planets around all our neighbouring stars. Looking further ahead; at the rate of our current technological development we could theoretically be able to tailor our viruses to make the creatures on other target planets evolve into sentient creatures like us. But here’s the strange bit. If we did such a thing and create sentient level creatures on a planet around another star, how would things look to them?
Tailored virus dummies
But here’s the really strange bit; there is evidence on our planet that such events have occurred. Have we been the subject of alien, tailored virus evolution? Is there evidence on Earth for these three signposts of alien, tailored virus evolution?
The first sign has already been discovered; the large amounts of old virus code in our genes. The second sign - huge jumps in evolution - is also in evidence. Our planet is about four billion years old. For its first three-or-so billion years, very little evolution occurred. And then, in the blink of an eye, geologically, there was an explosion of evolution, leading to a variety of multi-cellular organisms such as trilobites. This became known as the Cambrian Explosion. To this day, scientists do not have a strong theory as to why this explosion in life occurred, but our planet being bombarded by specialised viruses that altered the genes of the organisms on Earth would explain it fully. Two out of the three signposts are therefore in evidence on Earth. What about the third signpost of alien tailored virus evolution, a laser light from another star causing epidemics on Earth?
If such an event had happened to our planet in the last few thousand years, it would have occurred within recorded history. It would therefore have been talked about and written down. We can imagine how the reports would appear. They would talk about a neighbouring star changing its appearance, as the laser light coming from that star system, aimed at Earth, eclipsed its own star from our perspective. Soon after the star changed its appearance, there would be reports of epidemics breaking out, affecting specific species of animals and possibly people too. Eventually, the star would return to its normal appearance and the epidemics would end. Unbeknownst to everyone, the viruses that had caused the epidemics had altered the genetic code of those sufferers in specific, planned ways.
There is evidence that this has happened on our planet. In the first millennium before Christ, the star Sirius was reported to have changed to a fiery red from its normal blue-white appearance. It did this repeatedly over many years. When it did turn fiery red (the word ‘Sirius’ is from the Greek word ‘Seirios’, meaning ‘scorching or burning’), epidemics broke out on Earth. Eventually, the star stopped turning fiery red and has remained normal for the last two millennia. This event is known as the Sirius Red Controversy.
There is ample evidence that evolution on Earth has been guided by alien, tailored viruses. Fortunately, for our own peace of mind, there isn’t enough evidence at the moment to prove it conclusively. The backlash over the evidence that we are descended from apes still rages on in many parts of the world. Think what the reaction would be if scientists concluded that we’ve been crafted by Little Green Men from Sirius B?
Adrian Ellis - Winter 2014