We now know that not all viruses are bad for us: for example, viruses play a role in the human microbiome. More importantly, viruses are drivers of genetic innovation and therefore of the evolution of life. While we have no definitive evidence of when the first virus emerged, we can speculate that, once created, viruses coevolved with their hosts. What role do viruses play in the evolution of life? Are viruses a fundamental force in shaping the trajectory of life on Earth? Did viruses shape our genome? Are viruses part of our genome? How much of today's human genome is virus? Is viral infection a force that drives biological evolution toward higher complexity? Have we humans been selected by viruses? Our world is predominantly prokaryotic (bacteria and archaea). The prokaryotes are the most ancient, diverse and adaptable of all cellular life forms on Earth. But even more abundant and diverse and adaptable are the viruses of prokaryotes, now known to be the most numerous biological entities on Earth in all habitats. Concepts of "virus communication" and "RNA communication" may shed new light on how viruses affect their hosts, and persisting viral agents may explain the widespread "communal" aspect of prokaryotic life. According to Villareal, persistent infection by a virus population alters the genetic background of the host (its identity); viruses and other genetic parasites play key roles in the evolution of all life and had a role in the origin of life, and not simply by providing negative selection. By looking at key features of life as we know it on our planet, including immune systems, replication, transcription, translation, and repair in all its steps and substeps, Villarreal argues that all these features and properties are the result of evolutionary innovations caused, generated, and introduced by viruses, RNA consortia, and other genetic parasites. These infectious agents are the innovators of all life. They insert and delete, adapt, modify, and, most importantly, counterbalance competing genetic identities. They cooperate, edit genetic codes, and are at the basis of the secrets of life - including human life.
Speaker: Luis Villarreal, UC Irvine
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