Eustace TilleyThe New Yorker has an article on endogenous retroviruses that leaves me with mixed emotions. I’ve subscribed to the New Yorker for 20-odd years now, even hanging on through the lean Tina Brown years, because I love the quality of the non-fiction articles. (And the cartoons.) Their non-fiction is usually well-written and well-researched and usually does a terrific job of bringing across the importance and the interest of a field, whether it’s virology, steel production, or stocking grocery shelves. And in general, I think this article (“Darwin’s Surprise” by Michael Specter) does that as well. There was little in the article that was new to me, but I think that people unfamiliar with the field will have no trouble understanding it.

But here are some quotes from the first page, that made me slap down the magazine and mutter to myself.

Viruses reproduce rapidly and often with violent results, yet they are so rudimentary that many scientists don’t even consider them to be alive.

Because they no longer seem to serve a purpose or cause harm, these remnants have often been referred to as “junk DNA.”

And later on:

… the earliest available information about the history and the course of human diseases, like smallpox and typhus, came from mummies no more than four thousand years old. Evolution cannot be measured in a time span that short.

Those lines are at best lazy, and at worst bullshit.

The whole “viruses aren’t alive” crap isn’t an argument of scientists — in the 20 years I’ve been a virologist, I have never heard a scientist ask the question. Public school teachers, maybe high school biology teachers, maybe philosophers (I don’t know, I’m guessing) might ask the question, but scientists don’t. That’s because it has nothing to do with science. It’s a semantics question. People new to biology think it tells them something profound about What Life Is. It tells you nothing about life; it tells you about “life”, the word. The word “alive” dates back some 800 years. Of course it isn’t suited to explaining viruses. The word “virus” comes from the Latin for “Poison”; that tells us nothing interesting about virus lifestyles.

The whole “junk DNA” has been thrashed out a dozen times (see Genomicron for a good start). The bottom line? If you search Pubmed for the phrase “junk DNA” you will find a total of 80 articles (compare to, say, 985 articles for “endogenous retrovirus”); and a large fraction of those 80 articles only use the phrase to explain what a poor term it is. Scientists don’t use the term “junk DNA’. Lazy journalists use it so they can sneer at scientists (who don’t use it) for using it.

And of course, evolution can easily be measured in four thousand years. For a virus? Eighty years (the history of HIV), 1 or 8 years (West Nile Virus) 2 is plenty.

Aside from those points that bumped my Pet Peeve Bone, the article is a good one. But those just rubbed me the wrong way.

(Having written this, I see that Carl Zimmer at The Loom has beaten me to it.)

  1. Korber, B., Muldoon, M., Theiler, J., Gao, F., Gupta, R., Lapedes, A., Hahn, B. H., Wolinsky, S., and Bhattacharya, T. (2000). Timing the ancestor of the HIV-1 pandemic strains. Science 288, 1789-1796. []
  2. Brault, A. C., Huang, C. Y., Langevin, S. A., Kinney, R. M., Bowen, R. A., Ramey, W. N., Panella, N. A., Holmes, E. C., Powers, A. M., and Miller, B. R. (2007). A single positively selected West Nile viral mutation confers increased virogenesis in American crows. Nat Genet 39, 1162-1166. []