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Origin of life : "In the beginning there was the virus"
Ms. Mölling, since Darwin, humans have known that they are related to animals. According to Sigmund Freud, an offense to which you now add that humans only came about through the involvement of viruses?
I don't think that's an offense. On the contrary, it shows the broad context in which we humans stand. With all of our ancestors and our surroundings, we became what we are. We are still the most complex and versatile beings. In the course of evolution, only two percent of our genetic information was created, which codes for proteins, i.e. muscles, meat, bones or hair. The remaining 98 percent are used to regulate the two percent. It's pretty top-heavy. Half of our genome consists of more or less mutilated virus genes that can still be detected today. Some are a hundred million years old. Could all genes have originated from viruses? They are “smart” enough, that is, enough genetic information is available from viruses.
That would mean that all of our genome goes back to viruses.
I think so. But that cannot be proven, at least not for the first beginnings. Some viruses can be recovered from the genetic make-up. The French virologist Thierry Heidmann carried out such an experiment. In 2006, he reconstructed an intact virus genome from virus residues in the human genome that were around 50 million years old, thereby creating viruses that were capable of replicating, which he called "Phoenix". It was actually an adventurous experiment. Nobody knew what these viruses could cause. Nothing has happened. Heidmann's experiment showed that the mutilated viruses in our genome were once real viruses.
How did all these viruses get into our genome, and what is their purpose there?
They protect us from viruses from outside. Viruses in one cell will not let other viruses in. You think viruses are just a terrible world. But that is not true, and I am convinced that this view will change within a few years. Viruses not only make you sick, as classical virology teaches. They offer new genetic material, i.e. new information and protection. Sometimes, however, the viruses to be fought off no longer exist. That is why the viruses in our genome have withered over time. They were no longer necessary.
They believe that viruses are at the beginning of life. What experiments are needed to prove this thesis?
Darwin advocated the thesis that one can no longer understand the beginning of life under today's conditions. If this is accepted, there is no proof of the beginning. But there is the possibility of investigating what can be read from current viruses about the past and our evolution. The latest finding is that viruses and bacteria are closer to each other than assumed. This means that the transition from the first biomolecules to viruses and bacteria is continuous. The largest, newly discovered viruses, the gigaviruses, are sometimes even larger than bacteria. They also already have building blocks for protein synthesis. That was considered a privilege of bacteria, that is, living beings. Now there is something similar in viruses. The first cell cannot have been the beginning. It's already way too big. One has to go back further and find simpler and smaller beginnings.
In what period of time did this transition from dead to alive take place?
The earth was formed 4.5 billion years ago, and the RNA world, the world of ribonucleic acids, has existed for 3.8 billion years. How it came about, nobody can say today exactly. It certainly didn't come from space. The first biomolecule was an RNA. It can double itself in the test tube, so it is enzymatically active. This evidence came as a great surprise. A few years ago, the company even won the Nobel Prize for the discovery of this highly replicable RNA, the ribozymes. I leave it open whether one would like to call this biomolecule living. Life definitely needs reproduction and evolution. The ribozymes are already doing this.
How important is chance in your theory?
Chance plays an important role. There are extremely many ways to assemble the first biologically active molecules, more than have been exploited around the world to this day. A few molecules first had to prove to be particularly viable. The structure that emerged is so robust that there were probably other approaches that weren't. An example can be the ribozymes. They haunt all of our cells to this day - as chief regulators.
They call this first RNA molecule a virus.
Whether the ribozyme is called a virus or a viroid is a question of definition. The discoverers of such RNAs around 1950 called the molecule a viroid. That already shows the helplessness: is it a virus or just virus-like? I clearly count it as a virus. The classic definition of viruses is far too narrow for what we know about viruses today. Viruses are now considered mandatory parasites that do not multiply on their own and need host cells for this. Right, but that’s how we look at viruses today. I ask, on the other hand, whether this has always been the case and discuss that the viruses were there before the cells. This is not wild speculation, there is more and more evidence for it.
If your hypothesis of the origin of life from viruses proves to be true, would that solve the mystery of life?
No. The riddle of life is not solved on many levels. Each result also raises new questions. For example what we learn in life and what is inherited. Even the inheritance of acquired traits is now being discussed again. Here, too, could be another stroke of genius by the RNS. Only recently has it been known to what extent microbes also influence the functioning of an organism - humans are an ecosystem with many more bacterial cells than their own body cells. There are always questions unanswered and the prospect of many miracles.
The physicist John Archibald Wheeler said that there could be no proof for the origin of life, but only a theory that is "so simple, so beautiful, so convincing" that one would say that it could not have been otherwise ...
That was spoken from my soul. If we attribute all the complexity and everything we have today to a simple beginning, it could have looked like these first RNA molecules. Ribozymes, or viroids, are so elegant, economical, and versatile that they could have been the start.
To person: KARIN MÖLLING (72) is a virus and cancer researcher. Until her retirement, she worked at the University of Zurich. She is currently doing research at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics in Berlin.
Karin Mölling recently published “Superpower of Life. Travel to the amazing world of viruses ”, Verlag C.H. Beck, Munich, 318 pages (with 26 illustrations), 24.95 euros.
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