Virus Fossil Bed

Good Ideas Come in All Sizes

Scientists spent thirteen years mapping and sequencing the human genome. The Human Genome Project, though completed in 2003, was only the barest beginning of what we have yet to learn about ourselves, our own DNA, where we’ve come from, and where we’ve yet to go.

Hereditary predispositions to disease and illness—cancer, for example—may well be regulated or even eradicated in another generation or two.

Also, think of the billions of dollars to be made if we can only learn to manipulate the DNA of parents to guarantee children of unusual brilliance, custom eye-color chosen off a ring of those little color-sample chips, and perfect pitch.

Scientists are reconstructing million-year-old viruses from the remnant DNA scraps found in the human genome, according to this article in the New York Times:

Scientists who hunt for these viruses think of themselves as paleontologists searching for fossils. Just as animals get buried in rock, these viruses become trapped in the genomes of their hosts. While their free-living relatives continue to evolve, fossil viruses are effectively frozen in time.

Now, while reconstructing viruses that changed the course of human evolution may sound rather alarming, we’re told that the search for these virus fossils, and their eventual reconstitution, has a great deal of information to impart about the course that human evolution has taken:

Fossil viruses are also illuminating human evolution. Scientists estimate that 8.3 percent of the human genome can be traced back to retrovirus infections. To put that in perspective, that’s seven times more DNA than is found in all the 20,000 protein-coding genes in the human genome.

So not to worry. This is gentle pursuit of science for its own sake. It’s not as if they’re cloning dinosaurs. Or building flesh-eating battle robots.

MacAllister Stone is Editor in Chief of and She attended the Viable Paradise specfic writing workshop in October of 2006 and has been a member of the VP staff, since. She can often be found on the Absolute Write forums.

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