Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Endogenous Retroviruses and Smarts

Coturnix at Blog Around the Clock has a very interesting (re)post that muses about Greg Bear's Darwin's Radio and Darwin's Children and endogenous retroviruses.

After I read his last two novels, "Darwin's Radio" and "Darwin's Children" I decided to check on his science - it sounded very good, yet so fantastic at the same time. What I found was a surprise: the real science is really that fantastic! Greg only needed to add a very little twist in order to turn it from fiction into science-fiction. So, here is some of what I discovered (though I am a biologist, this is way out of my area of expertise, so assume this is a lay-person writing).

[great big snip . . . ]

What Greg Bear did in his novels is to allow one of the HERVs [human endogenouse retroviruses] to (re)evolve the capability to leave the cell and organism and infect another organism (or fetus). While doing so, it affects the patterns of transcription of many other genes in the human genome during embryonic development, leading to developmental changes in a number of subtle anatomical, physiological and behavioral traits - changes large enough for the "virus children" to be considered a new species. The novels are particularly good at describing how the new race is being treated by the xenophobic society. Of course, Bear is a novelist, so the new traits he picked are those that make for a really good story. Those traits are not any more or less probable than any others he could have picked (e.g., high sensitivity of the vomero-nasal organ).

Read the whole post for more information and speculation on the role of ERVs in evolution.

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