A dancing matrix of viruses

3 June 2014

Back in 1974, before it was possible to determine the sequence of a viral genome, before we knew much about the origin of viruses and their ability to move genes from organism to organism, Lewis Thomas wrote the following incredibly prescient words in The Lives of a Cell:

The viruses, instead of being single-minded agents of disease and death, now begin to look more like mobile genes. We live in a dancing matrix of viruses; they dart, rather like bees, from organism to organism, from plant to insect to mammal to me and back again, and into the sea, tugging along pieces of this genome, strings of genes from that, transplanting grafts of DNA, passing around heredity as though at a great party. They may be a mechanism for keeping new, mutant kinds of DNA in the widest circulation among us. If this is true, the odd virus disease, on which we must focus so much of our attention in medicine, may be looked on as an accident, something dropped.

When Thomas wrote these words we knew that bacteriophages could move pieces of DNA from bacterium to bacterium, but we had no idea of the global scale of this movement. We did not know that most viruses could carry genes from cell to cell, nor did we appreciate that viruses could be beneficial. I am amazed by the accuracy of his words written at a time when we knew so little.

  • Juan

    we were never that smart like the virus, because we never as simple as they are.

  • Per

    My professor and mentor in virology Ebba Lund wrote many years ago in the introduction to her virology textbook: If viruses didn’t cause disease, they would probably not be listed in the curriculum of vet students! We were made well aware that viruses might have more important functions than just causing disease.

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  • Sandra in Dallas

    Given the news out of Saudi Arabia yesterday, its too bad Matt was your guest for last week’s TWiV instead of this week’s! I enjoyed last week very much (i.e. I was able to understand most of the discussion despite my non-science education.) Am glad you mentioned Ian Lipkin’s comment (presumably aimed at those of us who do not have camels as pets…..) about keeping MERS coronavirus risk in perspective versus other disease risks.

    If you start a “bingo” phrase list for TWiM, don’t forget to include Michael’s “this is essentially a primer on…..”