Do viruses make us smarter?

Jan 19, 2015

Credit: © Sergey Bogdanov / Fotolia

By Science Daily

A new study from Lund University in Sweden indicates that inherited viruses that are millions of years old play an important role in building up the complex networks that characterise the human brain.

Researchers have long been aware that endogenous retroviruses constitute around five per cent of our DNA. For many years, they were considered junk DNA of no real use, a side-effect of our evolutionary journey.

In the current study, Johan Jakobsson and his colleagues show that retroviruses seem to play a central role in the basic functions of the brain, more specifically in the regulation of which genes are to be expressed, and when. The findings indicate that, over the course of evolution, the viruses took an increasingly firm hold on the steering wheel in our cellular machinery. The reason the viruses are activated specifically in the brain is probably due to the fact that tumours cannot form in nerve cells, unlike in other tissues.

“We have been able to observe that these viruses are activated specifically in the brain cells and have an important regulatory role. We believe that the role of retroviruses can contribute to explaining why brain cells in particular are so dynamic and multifaceted in their function. It may also be the case that the viruses’ more or less complex functions in various species can help us to understand why we are so different,” says Johan Jakobsson, head of the research team for molecular neurogenetics at Lund University.

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10 comments on “Do viruses make us smarter?

  • A virus has a Darwinian imperative to see that its host survives. It is new viruses that are lethal.

    We tend to think of humans as atomic creatures. but more likely they came from federations like sponges. Exactly what was part and not part of that federation was probably not that clearly defined. We contain bacteria needed for digestion, even though they do not share our DNA. Consider corals and lichens as mergings of two species.

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  • Roedy Jan 19, 2015 at 6:31 pm

    We tend to think of humans as atomic creatures. but more likely they came from federations like sponges. Exactly what was part and not part of that federation was probably not that clearly defined.

    They seem to be rethinking some of the early branches of ancestry, in the light of DNA analysis.

    Comb jellies paddle through the sea with iridescent cilia and snare prey with sticky tentacles. They are much more complex than sponges — they have nerves, muscles, tissue layers and light sensors, all of which the sponges lack.

    “It’s just wild to imagine” that comb jellies evolved before sponges, says Billie Swalla, a developmental biologist at the University of Washington in Seattle and a leading member of the team sequencing the genome of the comb jelly Pleurobrachia bachei. But the team is suggesting just that, in results they presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, held on 3–7 January in San Francisco, California.

    Despite comb jellies’ complexity, DNA sequences in the Pleurobrachia genome place them at the base of the animal tree of life, announced Swalla’s colleague Leonid Moroz, a neurobiologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Another team presented results from genome sequencing for the comb jelly Mnemiopsis leidyi, and found that the phylum lands either below, or as close to the base as, sponges on the tree.

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  • “Do viruses make us smarter?”

    Well, I couldn’t eat during the entire Christmas and New Year period because I had gastroenteritis; so although lighter I’m not brighter.

    Sorry, wrong kind of virus.

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  • I find this so fascinating: you get, say, a cold. A bunch of the viruses manage to get their genetic material embedded into yours, it sticks, and it gets passed on. This goes on for generations and, in time, a contamination of your DNA is turned into a feature, one that also gives you an advantage.
    That’s just cool.

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  • Olgun Feb 1, 2015 at 10:19 am

    Mote possible links to the subject I found interesting.

    And as my brain likes links, it got me thinking on another thread here that asked how we would adapt to space travel in the future. Less exposure to viruses and bacteria could change a whole host of things?

    We are certainly an ecosystem of bacteria, which vary geographically.

    Removing species from their natural habitat and the native viruses, bacteria, and fungi, can cause vulnerabilities.

    A classic is the “Great Irish Potato Famine”, where the crop -imported from the Americas, was bred in Europe, isolated from the the native diseases, so it lost its natural resistance.
    The vulnerable stains of potato were pretty much wiped out by the epidemic, when the disease finally caught up with the European strains of the crop.

    On a personal anecdote, I have just about got my gut flora and digestion back to normal, after I was heavily dosed with antibiotics after an operation in the year 2013.

    Children need to be protected from some of the more dire diseases, but also need to build up immunities by contact with common bacteria, in a semi sterile environment.

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  • It also makes me think that space travelling humans with spindly bodies and large heads that don’t need much exercise, or gravity for blood and with smaller organs, is not so far fetched.

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