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Can viruses do good?

OK, here’s another idea. I feel like putting it out there to see if it stimulates a debate. I don’t know of any research to support it. I wonder whether it holds water when scrutinised. So, in the interests of open debate, I’ll put it out there.

Is it possible that viruses or virus-like organisms could actually have good effects on species?

I ask this because it has really occurred to me watching the many nature programs these days and reading elsewhere how amazing it is that so many seemingly unrelated species have very similar adaptations. I can’t remember precisely the adaptations that triggered this thought, but I was able to come up with an idea of how this could work at a genetic level. That’s why I wonder if it could be the case.

Basically, I’m wondering if the concept of genetic variation is the only explanation for evolution. What if one species came up with an adaptation that it finds very beneficial? For example, developing horns, eyes, ears, and hair. All these things were developed at some point. Now, did each species evolve this on its own, or is there some natural mechanism that allows genes to be shared between species?

I’m not talking about a cow mating with a sheep and producing a hybrid. I don’t feel that’s the only way this could happen. My understanding of viruses is that they must live inside cells and embed their genetic code into ours. They then generally try to get the infected cell to reproduce copies of themselves with the new genetic code embedded.

Now, if I’ve misunderstood this point, then my theory falls down right there. But if that’s right, then it shows a potential for one organism to transfer its DNA to another.

With our worries about avian flu and mad cow disease, we’re also worried about a virus or prion from one species transferring to our own.

While we’re painfully aware of the problems this can cause it makes me wonder if this is also evidence of benefits that it can cause. This could go unnoticed because we’re so much more interested in things that harm us than things that help us. So it could easily go unnoticed because it doesn’t put people in hospital.

It seems clear that if one disease can spread from one species to another, the same process could possibly produce potential benefits. It could also explain why some people become immune to an illness as doctors often do. There are other explanations for this, but I’m just adding another one using a viral approach instead of a bacterial one.

Now, you could argue that the disease causes the evolutionary pressure to get better, and that is probably likely in many situations. But why did so many species develop eyes, and why are they so similar across species? That’s the kind of question I’m considering.

Obviously, I’m making a lot of assumptions. This is a relatively new theory of mine, but it does interest me. If anyone can shed some light on this, I’d like to know.

Maybe I’m just on the wrong track. I don’t know.

This article first appeared on my original blog and since then I have learnt that viruses can do good by using a process called horizontal gene transfer.

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