The Loom

Viruses have a special place at the Loom–they’re ubiquitous and have some pretty profound influences on the evolution of their hosts (including us). But a French scientist named Patrick Forterre wants to take it up a notch. He’s arguing that our very DNA is the creation of viruses some four billion years ago. It’s a controversial idea, but one that other scientists are definitely taking seriously. I’ve got the full story is here in today’s issue of Science, and here on my web site. For gorey details, see The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences for a paper by Forterre that surveys the scenario and the evidence it’s built on.


  1. #1 Owlmirror
    May 11, 2006

    Fascinating ideas.

    Penny says. He points out that RNA replication suffers a high error rate. Under those conditions, genomes cannot become large without risking catastrophic damage.

    Is there anything out there that gives a better description of that high error rate? How do RNA viruses work, given that?

  2. #2 Carl Zimmer
    May 12, 2006

    Owlmirror–RNA viruses are small, avoiding the dangers of big error-ridden genomes. For more from Penny, download this pdf:

  3. #3 msf
    May 12, 2006

    Great summary. Your blog makes goofing off at work truly rewarding. Keep up the good work.

  4. #4 Steviepinhead
    May 12, 2006

    I’ll second the “goofing off” comment!

    As to the original write-up, just wow, Carl. Science is infitely more interesting than the anti-science “alternatives.”

  5. #5 Steviepinhead
    May 13, 2006

    Hmm. Let’s try “infinitely” in the comment just above!

  6. #6 lee
    May 14, 2006

    Could you give us a paragraph or so on “most of the biomass in the oceans are made up of viruses”? That is amazing!

  7. #7 Jim Hu
    May 14, 2006

    I don’t think that’s right. Phage are the most abundant by number, outnumbering bacteria in the oceans by at least 10:1, but I don’t think they’re so abundant as to exceed the mass of their bacterial prey.

    Phage may affect the fate of the majority of the biomass in the oceants – on average, I’m told, bacteria are killed by phage about as often as they divide.

  8. #8 Steviepinhead
    May 15, 2006

    Ha! Here comes a nasty-looking virus! Quick, let’s divide, then “you” head that way and “I”‘ll head this way. That way, at least one of us can get away!

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