Icon coronavirusThe current coronavirus pandemic is a disaster. Understandably, because of this, viruses aren’t in anyone’s good books at the moment. As everyone’s found out, viruses can wreak havoc in an organism, killing that organism in a protracted and painful way. But there is another side to viruses that is rarely mentioned in the media, or even on scientific websites; they can shape our genetic code. This article will explore that area. It’ll put forward develop a shocking and profound possibility, that life on this planet could have been shaped by a distant, alien race, from its very basic beginnings, entirely through the use of viruses.

Library assistant

Viruses are clever devices. They gain entry to cells in an animal by ‘picking the lock’ of the cell’s outer walls. The virus enters the cell and migrates to its nucleus, the key part of the cell that contains the 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’s machinery to make more of that virus. The cell obeys, creating more and more copies of the virus until the cell is so stuffed with these copies that it literally bursts open, spilling all those newly-made copies into the animal’s blood-system. All those newly made viruses then migrate to other cells in the organism and the process continues. Animals usually have ways to stop this attack. Their immune system seeks out and destroys the viruses, and only mild harm occurs to the host organism, for example in the case of the common cold. In the case of other viruses, like Ebola, the damage the virus inflicts on a human host organism – a person – is severe and will, in most cases, kill them.

Viruses key ability is therefore to get into the nucleus of a cell and alter its DNA instructions. This has been going on for a very long time, in fact longer that animals have existed.

Viruses may also have another, far more fundamental role for life on this planet. In February 2014, The New Scientist magazine ran an article entitled, Thank viruses for your skin and bone. The article explained that many of the proteins, that our cells manufacture, are manufactured using instructions from genes originally found in viruses. In addition, the proteins needed for cell fusion – the building blocks needed to make multicellular organisms such as ourselves and all living things – all seem to have come from viruses too. It is an amazing idea, for it is stating that viruses were at work before even simple, multi-cellular organisms existed. What’s more, their tinkering of cells’ DNA actually made multi-cellular organisms possible.

In the article, Felix Rey of the Pasteur Institute in Paris, who headed up the work, speculates that:

“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.”

This revelation puts viruses in a new light. Instead of being nothing but a parasitic blight, they have  played a fundamental role in evolution. In fact, without viruses, there would be nothing living on this planet apart from simple, unicellular organisms such as bacteria and amoeba.

The author Frank Ryan has investigated this matter in his excellent book, Virolution. In it, he explains how much of the genetic code in all animals – the ‘letters’ of molecules strung out on the DNA strands of our cellular chromosomes – used to be regarded as junk information. At the time, biologists couldn’t see any point for those unused letters in our genetic code, since they didn’t encode for a protein. In other words, those bits of the DNA weren’t used by cellular machinery to make anything. They must therefore be useless noise, or junk.

More recently, it’s becoming clear that all that genetic code was once active; it did once do things, long ago. In some distant time, it was turned off and is now mute. Our DNA, which until recently was seen as small sections of useful instructions separated by random letters, is now being viewed as fossilised layers of old code that no longer work. Most significantly, that old genetic code was added-in by viruses. Our DNA is therefore lots of defunct code interspersed with small amounts of active code. This might not seem that exciting but there’s a twist. What is more likely, evolution by random mutation, or evolution via viral infection?

All at once

In 1859, Charles Darwin, with help from Alfred Russell Wallace, put forward the theory of evolution in his book ‘On the Origin of Species’. According to Darwin, new species come about through random mutations. In other words, an animal’s genes are randomly mutated, by radiation, chemical action or some other physical damage. That new, mutated DNA gives the animal an advantage. That animal then proliferates as it’s better than the non-mutated form; it is naturally selected. Eventually, all members of that species have the new mutation, or have branched off into a new species with that mutation. In this way, evolution can take place. In this straightforward manner, Darwin’s theory explains where all the animals and plants on Earth have come from and how our Earth contains such a vast menagerie of life.

But there is a niggling problem with Darwin’s theory. Firstly, DNA replication is extremely accurate. For example, the scientific paper Fidelity of DNA replication—a matter of proofreading states, the enzymes that copy DNA inside living cells make, on average, one mistake during every hundred million copies. Secondly, the vast majority of random mutations have a negative effect on an organism. Thirdly, if a single creature is born with a random mutation, it will be the only one with that mutation. If it produces offspring, those offspring may not inherit the change at all. Fourthly, the mutation must occur in the DNA of the animal’s egg or sperm before the creature is born, as this is the only way for a random mutation to present throughout the creature’s body. These many factors make evolution through random mutation incredibly slow. It might be fast enough to produce finches on the Galapagos Islands with different shaped beaks, but to turn an echidna into a tiger? This seems far less likely in the time required.

There is a way to alter the DNA of an entire species in a few short years, in a specific way. To do this, someone simply needs to make a tailored virus. That virus gets into one of the animals in the target species. The virus changes specific parts of the animals DNA, then tells the cell to make more of itself. The virus spreads through the population, changing all of them in that specified way. A process that could have taken a million years through ‘evolution through random mutation’ takes one generation; effectively an eye-blink.

Until recently, no one knew about viruses’ effect on DNA, or their crucial role in the development of basic cellular processes. The idea that evolution could be done extremely fast, deliberately, is therefore novel, but it should work. What’s more, it’s a more likely method for species to evolve in short time-frames than the traditional ‘blind luck single-animal mutation’ method. At the rate we’re progressing, we’d able to do this type of alteration by the end of this century. In a few generations, we’ll be able to artificially evolve animal and plant life, on this planet, through the dispersion of tailored viruses. We’d also, theoretically, have another possibility; we could evolve life on another planet.

Playing viral god

Let’s imagine a near-future scenario. We discover that there is very primitive life on a moon elsewhere in our solar-system, or even on a planet around a nearby star, such as Proxima Centauri. We are able to remotely analyse the life and we’re confident its DNA-based and unicellular. Some of us decide that we should help it evolve. We fire tailored viruses at that planet or moon. We wait and analyse the light signals. It seems that the viruses have done their work. The target ecosystem now has multicellular life. We decide to keep going. We make new tailored viruses and repeat the whole process. We could do this for centuries, steadily making life on that target ecosystem evolve into more advanced life-forms. They’d likely be the same as our organisms, as that would be the easiest thing to create, but they would be evolving. Given sufficient time, we could change that target moon or planet from hosting a few patches of slime-mould to become a paradise of advanced, multicellular creatures. If we did such a thing for long enough, life on the planet might even reach sentient levels. This is where events take a new twist. What would those sentient creatures think?

If a sentient species evolved on a planet or moon, through deliberate viral-driven evolution, then how would they know their origins? How would they know that they’ve come into existence through the tinkering of an alien race? The only evidence they’d have would be the fossilised viral code in their DNA, the evidence of strange jumps in evolution on their world, and perhaps eye-witness evidence of the last time their home planet/moon received a new viral injection. There might be historical reports of a distant star turning red, as a laser beam fired viral packets at them, and an ensuing plague which rendered people feverish for days, then left them subtly changed.

Here’s the biggest twist of all; there is evidence that exactly this has happened to us. Early in our planet’s history, about a billion years ago, life on this planet was proceeding extremely slowly. Primitive creatures roamed our seas and barely changed in form for millions of years. For the previous three-or-so billion years, very little evolution had occurred. All we had, a billion years ago, was mostly single-celled amoeba. Suddenly, geologically-speaking, evolution rapidly accelerated, producing a profusion of much more advanced creatures in a relatively short space of time. There seems to be no evidence of anything happening on our planet to trigger this a change. It just happened. There was an explosion of evolution, leading to a variety of multi-cellular organisms such as trilobites. This became known as the Cambrian Explosion. Since then, evolution has proceeded at an impressive rate, even in the face of cataclysmic events. More recently, the development of mammals, apes and then us has occurred at an even more impressive rate and we’re still evolving. Many people think that humans stopped evolving thousands of years ago, when Cro-Magnon man appeared, but in fact its been continuous ever since, in small ways.

So far, therefore, we can see evolution on our planet can easily have been done from afar, with tailored viruses. In truth, it’s not only as likely as natural selection through random mutation, it’s more likely. There is a final piece to this puzzle – evidence of being given tailored viruses by another star – and it comes from Ancient Greece. For full details on that, please read my article Fiery Sirius.

The Sirius Red Controversy, in which the star Sirius turned red, intermittently, for centuries, bringing plagues to the Mediterranean and further afield, matches a tailored-virus injection perfectly. This is just the type of experience a sentient race would have if they were being sent tailored viruses. The scary thing is, it seems we had it done to us. We might play God in the future but it may be that if we did this, we’d only be repeating the process, not creating it.

Fortunately, for the peace of mind of most of us here on Earth, there isn’t enough evidence at the moment to prove such a theory. The backlash over the theory 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?