Natalie Angier has written an essay in today’s Science Times that has opened a new area of analogy for the GoldenSwamp: viruses are to life something like what questionable webpages are to the online knowledge commons. Educators recoil from the “junk” on the Internet. Angier points out that: “Scientists initially dismissed the viral elements in our chromosomes as so much tagalong ‘junk DNA.’”
We do not know yet what the evolved Internet will be in terms of how it will organize and interface human knowledge. We do know that Google caused a transitional mutation when it captured the selective choices of users to push superior content. We can say Google’s underlying mechanism is to let users pick out the good stuff from the junk. The effect is that users organize gold within the swamp. Maybe the swampiness is necessary for something like this to be going on: “higher organisms have in fact co-opted viral genes and reworked them into the source code for major biological innovations . . . .”
David Weinberger’s terrific book Everything Is Miscellaneous describes Internet content as looking very much like Balint Zsako‘s illustration (shown with this post) from the Times for the biological virus swamp. The same kind of rules may operate with viruses and the miscellaneousness of Internet content. The result: order out of chaos. An example of a powerful analogy of such a thing for viruses is our own immune system. In the spirit only of provocative analogy, it is fascinating to read from Angier’s article:
Yet viruses have not only taken; they have also repaid us in ways we are just beginning to tally. “Viral elements are a large part of the genetic material of almost all organisms,” said Dr. Sharp, who won a Nobel Prize for elucidating details of our genetic code. Base for nucleic base, he said, “we humans are well over 50 percent viral.”
Scientists initially dismissed the viral elements in our chromosomes as so much tagalong “junk DNA.” But more recently some researchers have proposed that higher organisms have in fact co-opted viral genes and reworked them into the source code for major biological innovations, according to Luis P. Villarreal, director of the Center for Virus Research at the University of California, Irvine.
Some genes involved in the growth of the mammalian placenta, for example, have a distinctly viral character, as do genes underlying the recombinant powers of our adaptive immune system — precisely the part that helps us fight off viruses.
In fact, it may well have been through taking genomic tips from our viral tormentors that we became so adept at keeping them at bay.
“Our bodies spontaneously recover from viruses more so than overwhelming bacterial infections,” said Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “Viral infections have shaped the nature of the human immune system, and we have adapted to mount a very effective response against most of the viruses that we confront.” Vaccines accentuate this facility, he added, which is why vaccination programs have been most successful in preventing viral diseases.