Spotlight on Louis Villarreal

If you are looking for a ‘hero’ to look up to in the viral evolution world, you probably couldnt find a better choice than Louis Villarreal of the University of California, Irvine. I mean, he is like *the* definition of someone who came from a tough background, had to struggle through school a bit, but followed their passion to become a leader and innovator in an extraordinarily competitive field.

Villarreal is a Mexican American who grew up in friggen East LA. First one of his family to graduate from high school, he tested the academic waters by first attending community college, then transferring to UCLA to get his BS in biochem. After his “OHMYGOD You can get grad school paid for???” moment, Villarreal got his PhD from the University of California, San Diego– becoming the only person in his high school class to get a graduate degree.

He then went on to be a part of, what I call, the viral revolution. When I was little, viruses were nothing more than bits of renegade RNA/DNA. Parasites. Uninteresting outside of the context of disease. Villarreal was part of a troupe of scientists who demanded viruses be given appropriate recognition in the study of evolution of life on this planet. He brought this new view of viruses to Average Joes and Janes (including me) in 2004 with a SciAm article, ‘Are Viruses Alive?

… most evolutionary biologists hold that because viruses are not alive, they are unworthy of serious consideration when trying to understand evolution. They also look on viruses as coming from host genes that somehow escaped the host and acquired a protein coat. In this view, viruses are fugitive host genes that have degenerated into parasites. And with viruses thus dismissed from the web of life, important contributions they may have made to the origin of species and the maintenance of life may go unrecognized. (Indeed, only four of the 1,205 pages of the 2002 volume The Encyclopedia of Evolution are devoted to viruses.)

… a virus genome (the entire complement of DNA or RNA) can permanently colonize its host, adding viral genes to host lineages and ultimately becoming a critical part of the host species’ genome. Viruses therefore surely have effects that are faster and more direct than those of external forces that simply select among more slowly generated, internal genetic variations. The huge population of viruses, combined with their rapid rates of replication and mutation, makes them the world’s leading source of genetic innovation: they constantly “invent” new genes. And unique genes of viral origin may travel, finding their way into other organisms and contributing to evolutionary change.

That one little SciAm article is one of the reasons I am who I am today.


You can imagine my horror when I recieved this email last fall:

I came across you ERV web site while searching for some early references on selfish DNA. Given your interest and background, I thought you might be interested to read an overview chapter I recently wrote for the new edition of “Origin and Evolution of Viruses”…

… I enjoyed your blog as it does convey some sense of your personality and a noble opposition to popular irrationality (a thankless but important quest for folks in science).

cheers, Luis V.




The first edition of ‘Origin and Evolution‘ is sitting on Bossmans bookshelf, and I regularly would pick it up to read a chapter or two while waiting for a gel to run or Western to probe or whatever. I love that book, as well as THE book on quasispecies, “Quasispecies: Concepts and Implications for Virology

So I happily accepted Villarreals preview chapter last fall, and now that Im on SciBlogs, I want to give it the attention/PR plug it deserves!

Villarreal was very concerned that it was too ‘thick’ for casual reading, but I disagree. Maybe it is because I am intensely interested in these topics, but I devoured its 37 pages like a long-lost Harry Potter chapter. I know the rest of ‘Origin and Evolution’ is rather technical, but I think this new intro chapter is very accessible to interested laymen (I think an average ERV reader could get a lot from it).

And I cant pick one thing out as being ‘WHOA! Thats cool! Im gonna quote it on ERV!’– The whole damn thing is quotable. But I will pick a small portion to paraphrase because I think it fits in with a broader theme of ‘How Science Works’ that I try to convey on ERV (no direct quotes, guys– I dont want to get Villarreal in trouble with his publisher, or whatnot). Creationists scream bloody murder about the evils of evilution and Darwinism and how Good Christian Scientists(TM) who challenge orthodoxy are EXPELLED, etc. Villarreal makes it a point to emphasize that viruses, especially RNA viruses, dont operate by ‘classical Darwininan models.’ They operate as quasispecies, where a ‘most fit variant’ loses all meaning in the face of complementation, cooperation, and competition within the viral population. Traditional evolutionary biologists were not impressed with this new ‘quasispecies’ concept and thought the old ways of doing things was just fine… until the viral evolution folks showed them enough data to change their minds.

Viruses (and virologists) challenged ‘classical Darwinism’ with a new idea. They did not make a movie about how virologists were EXPELLED. They did not attack local school boards. They worked hard in their laboratories to firmly establish their ideas in the research world, and now ‘quasispecies’ is a grad-school level concept. Like everything else in science, it will trickle down to college, high school, etc from there. That is how ‘science’ works, much to Creationists dismay.

I would also like to add, I wish Villarreal would blog. Or at least write more pop-science articles. Not only because of how conversationally (yet professionally) this intro chapter was written, and not only because of his SciAm article, but also because of some writings of his Ive seen online, directed towards students:

My career goals are to continue with my research with respect to how viruses are involved with their hosts, contribute to their hosts, how they affect their hosts, as well as how these processes are used by the hosts themselves. Now, you are probably thinking, “Say what?!”
Okay, I’ll explain to you what is so fascinating about my work.
I think a mistake many students make is establishing too early on what they think they should be, without knowing where their true interests lie. With regards to a person’s future, I think the long, difficult road usually takes you to the top. The short, quick road will take you to the bottom. It’s better to take five years in college if you need to, for example, than to breeze through in four years with all C’s.

Okay, the first part is just funny. The second part is serious. So many kids think ‘Eh Im not a super nerd, Im not smart enough to go into science’. Or ‘Man I dont have the grades to get into a state school. Who goes to community college and goes on to win a Nobel?’ ‘Ugh Im from East LA/East St. Louis/Nowhere Town West Virgina. People from here grow up to work at Dairy Queen, not university professors.’

Yeah, hes right. The long hard road does take you to the top. If it was easy, everyone would do it. But if you have the passion, and you really want it, anyone can climb the path from East LA to leading a viral revolution ๐Ÿ˜‰


  1. #1 Sili
    May 18, 2008

    Congratulations on the recognition!

    Glad that your blogging doesn’t only attract (concern) trolls -and people with poor reading comprehension …

    Yes, the easy road does not lead to success. I may have found it easy to learn some stuff, but I did not put that little talent to good use, that’s for sure.

    Good luck to you! I’m sure you’ll amount to a lot (more than you already do).

  2. #2 Jrob
    May 18, 2008

    Keeping with the “talking over their heads” bit, I’ve a confession to make…

    About half of the blogs I read on SciBlog are WWWAAAYYY over my head. But rather than giving up, I just click on a link and try to figure out what in the world is going on.

    Do me a favor. When you’re writing, don’t worry about poor widdle me. I’ll try and catch up.

  3. #3 ERV
    May 18, 2008

    Jrob!!! NOOOO!!!

    If something is ‘over your head’ ask questions!! ASK QUESTIONS!!! Thats why we are here! Plus, if we dont know something, one of our commenters does! We has the intrawebz!

    *squint* Ask questions. LOL!

  4. #4 Marc
    May 18, 2008

    the comparison to Expelled is hugely telling. Tell Eugenie. Seriously.

  5. #5 Stephen Wells
    May 19, 2008

    I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen a presentation end and a hall full of people sit there, nobody raising a hand, nobody asking a question.

    So these days, I’m willing to be the first one to raise a hand and ask a question. Sometimes, it’s something really specific to a talk. Sometimes, I’ll ask about a connection to another field or topic. Sometimes, it’ll be a generic question- all theory speakers can be asked what are the experimental implications, and vice versa ๐Ÿ™‚ But there is always something to ask.

    I’ve learned two important things from this. One is that, no matter how dumb the question seems, you are not the only one in the room who needed to ask it. Lecture halls have lurkers too ๐Ÿ™‚ and they will be grateful if you ask for that definition. Maybe nobody understood the acronym on slide 13.

    The other is that, once you’ve asked that first question- ten people will have their hands up to ask the second.

    The other day we had a presentation on the lytic/lysogenic switch in phase lambda. Never heard of it before, but it turns out that the phage can either do its usual infect/replicate/destroy routine, or it can, wait for it, get itself copied into the bacterial genome and become endogenous and nonpathogenic! Then, if it gets by UV light/chemicals/bad moods, it leaps out of the genome again and goes ah HA! and turns lethal once more.

    So of course I asked about analogies to ERVs in eukaryotes ๐Ÿ™‚ Which I couldn’t have done without this blog to inform me on the subject.

    Thanks, Abbie.

  6. #6 Gobaskof
    May 19, 2008

    Tiny bit off topic, but there is a new post “Aw common now.”, and my browser seems convinced that it is a blank page. Is this just my stupid internet connection, or is the page really blank?

  7. #7 ERV
    May 19, 2008

    Naw, its not just you– stand by…

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