Infectious Diseases

What is the Role of Viruses on Planet Earth

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"What is the Role of Viruses on Planet Earth"
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Viruses serve as carriers of genetic information, transferring genes from one species to another (a process known as "gene jumping"). You might say that viruses are dispatchers of genetic information, like the pony express of Earth's ecosystem. They help modify and expand traits on an interspecies scale. Without viruses to help jump-start the development of diversity in an ecosystem, many current species may have failed to thrive, and many would have died out. Unfortunately, viruses come with a price: the genetic modification that may benefit one species may harm or disadvantage another.

As a result of viruses in our midst, all Earth's life forms contain snippets of genetic information native to other species. This results in a type of "genetic melting pot" which occasionally gets stirred up as outbreaks of certain viral strains emerge, affecting certain ecosystems on a sweeping scale.
This may shed some new light on the old conundrum: "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" In a way, we all have a little of that chicken DNA discreetly coded into us, and the chicken egg may harbor a few genes attributed to primates. Who's to say which traits emerged first if you go far back enough in the fossil record?

Viruses do their work swiftly in a series of jumps and starts, and may account for what seem to be otherwise inexplicable "quantum leaps" in the evolutionary record of Earth's lifeforms. In a way, viruses may be the elusive "missing link" that may explain perceived gaps in the fossil record. Most of the evolutionary work done by viruses accomplished behind the scenes, subtle and left largely unnoticed... A viral strain that lay dormant in a host species for untold ages, may suddenly spring into activity, benefiting one select group while wiping out another.

For more information regarding the fascinating role of viruses in ecosystems, I highly recommend reading "Survival of the Sickest" by Sharon Moalem (ISBN-13: 9780061232961).

In conclusion, I'd like to add that viruses may help to resolve the differences between Evolutionists and those that advocate Creationism, taking the debate to an entirely new level. If the onset of certain defining traits among species can be attributed to the long-term activity of viruses, then it is not necessary to conclude that any one species ever evolved into another, such as apes to humans. Instead, it is more logical to conclude that all species are not entirely closed systems, and each owes a large portion of genetic makeup to neighboring species. Perhaps, viruses can be likened to the Creator's genetic broadcast system, to satisfy Creationists, while Evolutionists can rest secure in knowing that a process of genetic modification does take place in species over time, resulting in a more diversified biosystem. Does this change a fish to a bird, or an ape to man? Of course not. It does however imply that all lifeforms on our planet may share more in common than previously thought, at any stage of the fossil record, and may explain why apes and humans share some similar traits while remaining wholly unique species.

More about this author: L. Merlino

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