Darwin’s Surprise: Why are evolutionary biologists bringing back extinct deadly viruses?

Michael Specter in The New Yorker:

Nothing—not even the Plague—has posed a more persistent threat to humanity than viral diseases: yellow fever, measles, and smallpox have been causing epidemics for thousands of years. At the end of the First World War, fifty million people died of the Spanish flu; smallpox may have killed half a billion during the twentieth century alone. Those viruses were highly infectious, yet their impact was limited by their ferocity: a virus may destroy an entire culture, but if we die it dies, too. As a result, not even smallpox possessed the evolutionary power to influence humans as a species—to alter our genetic structure. That would require an organism to insinuate itself into the critical cells we need in order to reproduce: our germ cells. Only retroviruses, which reverse the usual flow of genetic code from DNA to RNA, are capable of that. A retrovirus stores its genetic information in a single-stranded molecule of RNA, instead of the more common double-stranded DNA. When it infects a cell, the virus deploys a special enzyme, called reverse transcriptase, that enables it to copy itself and then paste its own genes into the new cell’s DNA. It then becomes part of that cell forever; when the cell divides, the virus goes with it. Scientists have long suspected that if a retrovirus happens to infect a human sperm cell or egg, which is rare, and if that embryo survives—which is rarer still—the retrovirus could take its place in the blueprint of our species, passed from mother to child, and from one generation to the next, much like a gene for eye color or asthma.

When the sequence of the human genome was fully mapped, in 2003, researchers also discovered something they had not anticipated: our bodies are littered with the shards of such retroviruses, fragments of the chemical code from which all genetic material is made. It takes less than two per cent of our genome to create all the proteins necessary for us to live. Eight per cent, however, is composed of broken and disabled retroviruses, which, millions of years ago, managed to embed themselves in the DNA of our ancestors. They are called endogenous retroviruses, because once they infect the DNA of a species they become part of that species. One by one, though, after molecular battles that raged for thousands of generations, they have been defeated by evolution. Like dinosaur bones, these viral fragments are fossils. Instead of having been buried in sand, they reside within each of us, carrying a record that goes back millions of years. Because they no longer seem to serve a purpose or cause harm, these remnants have often been referred to as “junk DNA.” Many still manage to generate proteins, but scientists have never found one that functions properly in humans or that could make us sick.

Then, last year, Thierry Heidmann brought one back to life.

More here.