Viruses and hacking the human genome

Via my friend Rob Hyndman (who came across it via David “Joho the Blog” Weinberger), I just finished reading a fascinating article in The New Yorker about how HIV-style “retroviruses” from millions of years ago have successively rewritten the human genome, and may have even been instrumental in reprogramming our DNA in ways that helped the human race to survive — for example, by causing proto-humans to develop the ability to give birth to their young alive.

One of the disturbing aspects of the article (at least to me) was the description of how researchers had recreated, Jurassic Park style, a virus that existed hundreds of thousands of years ago, and how:

“Thanks to steady advances in computing power and DNA technology, a talented undergraduate with a decent laptop and access to any university biology lab can assemble a virus with ease.”

Kind of a disturbing image: a medical hacker with some mail-order biological material and a virus database, working away in some basement lab. I realize there have been movies and books about this concept, but it always seemed like science fiction. Now it seems a lot more like just plain science. But even apart from that kind of movie-of-the-week idea, I think it’s fascinating that horrible epidemics in the past may have helped create the human race as we know it.

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