Saturday, February 18, 2006

Unintelligent Design, or Do We Come From Viruses?

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, through an accumulation of genetic accounting errors committed by hordes of mindless, microscopic replication machines. Our descent from apes is the least of it. With the discovery of Mimi, scientists are close to ascribing to viruses the last role that anyone would have conceived for them: that of life's prime mover.


Many theists are willing to admit that evolution is at least possible, but remain convinced that the formation of our very first ancestor was too improbable to have happened by chance. Indeed it seems impossible that something as complex as a cell could have formed by chance and it's unclear what the precursor to a cell could be. However, if we start from a sea of amino acids and try to figure out the simplest possible replicator which could have eventually evolved into... well, us, than we might come up with something that looks a lot like a virus -- basically a strand of genetic material wrapped in a protective protein shell.

According to this fascinating article, some scientists are starting to believe that viruses may in fact be our ancestors. Also, even if the first replicator wasn't something like a virus, viruses may have played a key role in the development of the first cell nucleus.

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.

"This thing shows that some viruses are organisms that have an ancestor that was much more complex than they are now," says Didier Raoult, one of the leaders of the research team at the Mediterranean University in Marseille, France, that identified the virus. "We have a lot of evidence with Mimivirus that the virus phylum is at least as old as the other branches of life and that viruses were involved very early on in the evolutionary emergence of life."

That represents a radical change in thinking about life's origins: 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, through an accumulation of genetic accounting errors committed by hordes of mindless, microscopic replication machines. Our descent from apes is the least of it. With the discovery of Mimi, scientists are close to ascribing to viruses the last role that anyone would have conceived for them: that of life's prime mover...

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.

"This thing shows that some viruses are organisms that have an ancestor that was much more complex than they are now," says Didier Raoult, one of the leaders of the research team at the Mediterranean University in Marseille, France, that identified the virus. "We have a lot of evidence with Mimivirus that the virus phylum is at least as old as the other branches of life and that viruses were involved very early on in the evolutionary emergence of life..."

Even as Darwinism has come under attack from the theology of the intelligent design movement, scientists have never been closer to divining life's origins. With DNA evidence as solid as that used to convict criminals, researchers can trace the shared genetic lineage of life's different branches back to the very base of the tree, some 4 billion years ago, when the interaction between primordial bacteria and viruses culminated in the "mother cell," the common ancestor of all life on Earth. Although the remoteness and complexity of those events makes them difficult to piece together, viruses like Mimi are emerging as the key players in the picture...

How the first nucleus came to be is a question that has intrigued scientists ever since Scottish botanist Robert Brown first detected a cell nucleus while peering at orchids under a microscope one day in 1824.

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.


(via digg)

6 comments:

CyberKitten said...

Cool breakthrough. Interesting as always JA.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

I don't think this is new information. It seems to me I read about this possibility years ago. But stuff like this gets replayed in the media from time to time as if it's a new breakthrough.

I don't see how it disproves the existence of a Creator any more than the theory of evolution already had.

CyberKitten said...

Q said: I don't see how it disproves the existence of a Creator any more than the theory of evolution already had.

Quite right. Neither more knowledge of the origins of life, nor more evidence for evolution disproves the existence of God - though they do call into question the need for His existence. If everywhere we look there is a perfectly adequate natural explanation for events.. what need have we to look for a supernatural one?

Anonymous said...

Since a new creationist released codices from Solomon's Temple and shards from the Library of Alexandria, the "Evolutionists" are running for cover. He has taken the fight to a new level: offering big cash incentives for them to disprove his findings.
By deduction the Hebrew texts in the Tanakh bring to non-effect the clandestine act of destroying the Library of Alexandria. Many presumably lost data are now resurfacing. After all, Job in Job 36:27 described the rain cycle in detail 2000 plus years before the births of Perrault and Mariotte, whom scientists say discovered it.
I wonder if "Evolutionists" feel threatened that their research funds will dry up now that Mr. Hill is reducing their findings to myths. After all, God never adjusts his positions. His position is that He made certain beings after their own kind and DNA evidence supports His assertions. Scientists keep revising their hypotheses: what will they bring up next? We are still wondering why the Apes changed back after tasting "Human-ness" and the answer to why big-headed humans are not classiffied separately from smaller-skulled humans today.
Bloggerfield.

jewish philosopher said...

I does seems like a logical conclusion that an advanced virus of some sort would be the missing link between simple chemicals and the first bacteria, however even just from reading the article you cite, all this is still extremely speculative.

If one is already convinced of evolution, this will provide some slight comfort, however it hardly provides a clear non-theist theory of life's origin.

Jewish Atheist said...

Q: I don't think this is new information. It seems to me I read about this possibility years ago.

I think the Mimi virus is newly discovered, which proves that viruses can be much more complex than previously known. For sure, people have been talking about viruses being involved at the earliest stages of evolution for quite some time.

I don't see how it disproves the existence of a Creator any more than the theory of evolution already had.

It's not at all a disproof. However, it may provide a plausible explanation for the earliest steps of evolution.

Cyberkitten: Yep.

Anonymous/Bloggerfield: Still no idea what you're talking about.

jewish philosopher:

all this is still extremely speculative.

If one is already convinced of evolution, this will provide some slight comfort, however it hardly provides a clear non-theist theory of life's origin.


I agree with you here (except for the strange idea that those convinced of evolution need or seek "comfort.") Still pretty interesting stuff, though.