Virus - Origins


Viruses are found wherever there is life and have probably existed since living cells first evolved. The origin of viruses is unclear because they do not form fossils, so molecular techniques have been used to compare the DNA or RNA of viruses and are a useful means of investigating how they arose. There are three main hypotheses that try to explain the origins of viruses:

Regressive hypothesis
Viruses may have once been small cells that parasitised larger cells. Over time, genes not required by their parasitism were lost. The bacteria rickettsia and chlamydia are living cells that, like viruses, can reproduce only inside host cells. They lend support to this hypothesis, as their dependence on parasitism is likely to have caused the loss of genes that enabled them to survive outside a cell. This is also called the degeneracy hypothesis, or reduction hypothesis.
Cellular origin hypothesis
Some viruses may have evolved from bits of DNA or RNA that "escaped" from the genes of a larger organism. The escaped DNA could have come from plasmids (pieces of naked DNA that can move between cells) or transposons (molecules of DNA that replicate and move around to different positions within the genes of the cell). Once called "jumping genes", transposons are examples of mobile genetic elements and could be the origin of some viruses. They were discovered in maize by Barbara McClintock in 1950. This is sometimes called the vagrancy hypothesis, or the escape hypothesis.
Coevolution hypothesis
This is also called the virus-first hypothesis and proposes that viruses may have evolved from complex molecules of protein and nucleic acid at the same time as cells first appeared on Earth and would have been dependent on cellular life for billions of years. Viroids are molecules of RNA that are not classified as viruses because they lack a protein coat. However, they have characteristics that are common to several viruses and are often called subviral agents. Viroids are important pathogens of plants. They do not code for proteins but interact with the host cell and use the host machinery for their replication. The hepatitis delta virus of humans has an RNA genome similar to viroids but has a protein coat derived from hepatitis B virus and cannot produce one of its own. It is, therefore, a defective virus and cannot replicate without the help of hepatitis B virus. In similar manner, the sputnik virophage is dependent on mimivirus, which infects the protozoan Acanthamoeba castellanii. These viruses that are dependent on the presence of other virus species in the host cell are called satellites and may represent evolutionary intermediates of viroids and viruses.

In the past, there were problems with all of these hypotheses: the regressive hypothesis did not explain why even the smallest of cellular parasites do not resemble viruses in any way. The escape hypothesis did not explain the complex capsids and other structures on virus particles. The virus-first hypothesis contravened the definition of viruses in that they require host cells. Viruses are now recognised as ancient and to have origins that pre-date the divergence of life into the three domains. This discovery has led modern virologists to reconsider and re-evaluate these three classical hypotheses.

The evidence for an ancestral world of RNA cells and computer analysis of viral and host DNA sequences are giving a better understanding of the evolutionary relationships between different viruses and may help identify the ancestors of modern viruses. To date, such analyses have not proved which of these hypotheses is correct. However, it seems unlikely that all currently known viruses have a common ancestor, and viruses have probably arisen numerous times in the past by one or more mechanisms.

Prions are infectious protein molecules that do not contain DNA or RNA. They can cause infections such as scrapie in sheep, bovine spongiform encephalopathy ("mad cow" disease) in cattle, and chronic wasting disease in deer; in humans prionic diseases include Kuru, Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease, and Gerstmann–Sträussler–Scheinker syndrome. They are able to replicate because some proteins can exist in two different shapes and the prion changes the normal shape of a host protein into the prion shape. This starts a chain reaction where each prion protein converts many host proteins into more prions, and these new prions then go on to convert even more protein into prions; all known prion diseases are fatal. Although prions are fundamentally different from viruses and viroids, their discovery gives credence to the theory that viruses could have evolved from self-replicating molecules.

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