Sunday, December 16, 2007

Viruses in genes

I hardly come across anyone who wants to say "evolution is just a theory." Maybe I'm lucky. Maybe I live in Switzerland. But next time I do, I'll pull out this bit from "Darwin's Surprise," by Michael Specter, The New Yorker, Dec. 3, 2007:

"Yet nothing provides more convincing evidence for the 'theory' of evolution than the viruses contained within our DNA. Until recently, the earliest available information about the history and the course of human diseases, like smallpox and typhus, came from mummies no more than four thousand years old. Evolution cannot be measured in a time span that short. Endogenous retroviruses provide a trail of molecular bread crumbs leading millions of years into the past.

Darwin’s theory makes sense, though, only if humans share most of those viral fragments with relatives like chimpanzees and monkeys. And we do, in thousands of places throughout our genome. If that were a coincidence, humans and chimpanzees would have had to endure an incalculable number of identical viral infections in the course of millions of years, and then, somehow, those infections would have had to end up in exactly the same place within each genome. The rungs of the ladder of human DNA consist of three billion pairs of nucleotides spread across forty-six chromosomes. The sequences of those nucleotides determine how each person differs from another, and from all other living things. The only way that humans, in thousands of seemingly random locations, could possess the exact retroviral DNA found in another species is by inheriting it from a common ancestor.

Molecular biology has made precise knowledge about the nature of that inheritance possible. With extensive databases of genetic sequences, reconstructing ancestral genomes has become common, and retroviruses have been found in the genome of every vertebrate species that has been studied. Anthropologists and biologists have used them to investigate not only the lineage of primates but the relationships among animals—dogs, jackals, wolves, and foxes, for example—and also to test whether similar organisms may in fact be unrelated."


Jee Leong said...

Hi Andrew,
But we know that statistical improbability is no problem for God, don't we? :)

Jee Leong

Andrew Shields said...

God is the trump card, but I always bid No Trumps.