Ebola: Evolving through culture and genetic mimicry

Richard Mark Glover

They stood in the one room shack, white teeth flashing, bony joints, irascible even under death, poor and salubrious in ceremony in the shanty town not far from the Moa River.

They kissed the naked corpse and danced and wailed and nibbled jungle meat. Again they touched the corpse, while fluids ran from every orifice of the deceased: ear, nose, mouth, penis, anus, weeping jaundice eyes and skin pores.

 It is the fluids of the cadaver that are most contagious. Ebola, the deadly virus evolved most recently by jumping cellular hosts making a cross-species arc from African fruit bats to humans and thrives as most viruses do in moist conditions. Now medics in quarantined sections of Nigeria, Guinea, and Sierra Leone fight virus and culture both steeped in generations of collective behavior.

The viral universe is nearly as old as the planet. Many scientists say that viruses sprang up with the first living cells on Earth some four billion years ago and, perhaps, even pre-date them. Viruses have no ribosomes, the protein fabrication department of cells that keeps cells alive. Instead,  the tricky viruses reproduce and stay alive by re-programing host cell ribosomes through genetic mimicry to produce what they cannot: proteins and especially capsid, a protein that protects the virus and allows it to slip into new cellular worlds undetected.

Some scientists suggest that viruses are not life forms but merely tiny blobs of protein and nucleic acid, unable to reproduce themselves, stuck in a no-mans-land between life and non-life. But the fact that they are able to commandeer cells and have been found in nearly all forms of life suggest that if they are not life, they are highly evolved forms of genetic information and may be the seminal bio-chemical mechanism that launched the self-sustaining properties of life.

 Luis P. Villarreal, PhD.,  former director of the Center for Virus Research at the University of California, Irvine, designated the virus  a new status : “the world’s leading source of genetic innovation.”

 Viruses provide researchers with “a real-time example of evolution in action,” says Villareal. He further explains this groundbreaking concept in the following excerpt from “Are Viruses Alive?” published in the Scientific American in August 2008.

Most known viruses are persistent and innocuous, not pathogenic. They take up residence in cells, where they may remain dormant for long periods or take advantage of the cells’ replication apparatus to reproduce at a slow and steady rate. These viruses have developed many clever ways to avoid detection by the host immune system— essentially every step in the immune process can be altered or controlled by various genes found in one virus or another.

The huge population of viruses, combined with their rapid rates of replication and mutation, makes them the world’s leading source of genetic innovation: they constantly ‘invent’ new genes. And unique genes of viral origin may travel, finding their way into other organisms and contributing to evolutionary change. From single-celled organisms to human populations, viruses affect all life on earth, often determining what will survive. New viruses, such as the AIDS-causing HIV-1, may be the only biological entities that researchers can actually witness come into being, providing a real-time example of evolution in action.

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