Viruses and artificial evolution
A very interesting article appeared in this week's New Scientist magazine entitled 'Thank viruses for your skin and bone'. The article explains that many of the proteins that our cells manufacture are from genes originally found in viruses. More importantly, the proteins needed for cell fusion, for multicellular organisms such as ourselves and all living things, all seem to have come from viruses. This is a fascinating continuation of an earlier New Scientist article discussing the increasing importance scientists give to viruses in relation to cellular evolution. Felix Rey of the Pasteur Institute in Paris, who headed up the work, speculates that:
Viruses may be responsible for the very existence of multicellular organisms. Viruses come and go between different cells, exchanging genetic information between them. "This makes me think that viruses have contributed enormously to the communication between cells, and to the appearance of multicellular organisms on Earth."
This idea has fascinating consequences, not only for our understanding of the natural processes of evolution, but of the possibilities for artificially guiding evolution. For example, if your civilisation existed for tens of millennia and you had advanced knowledge of genetic engineering, you could steer the evolution of life on another planet. As long as the target planet contained unicellular organisms, you could repeatedly send tailored viruses to that planet. These viruses would infect the remote cells, change their genetic code and gradually modify them to become multicellular organisms. You could continue this process, sending new viruses that deliberately alter and extend the genetic code of life on that planet. By doing this, you could make those primitive organisms more advanced, more varied, more sophisticated. You would be the overriding source of evolution on that planet.
Although it would be easier to do this to another planet in your solar system, it would be perfectly feasible to do the same trick to a planet around another star. As viruses are so small and relatively hardy, you could 'coat' them to allow them to be propelled by a laser beam. You could then point a laser at that star and insert a stream of virus packets into that beam. Although the vast majority of virus packets would be lost en route, a small fraction could reach the target planet intact. Once they were there, they could infect life on that planet. In the same way that a viral infection of our bodies can start with only a single virus particle, you would only need a handful of virus packets to successfully infect life on the alien planet to make the process work. Once they had infected life on the target planet, they would use the living organisms on the planet to create more copies of themselves and, by doing that, spread their gene-altering code to life on the entire planet.
It's interesting to think of the human race carrying out such a project in the future, when our level of technical understanding has reached a sufficient level, but a more pertinent question is; has this been done to us?
Logically, if a race reached such a level of advancement, it could accelerate evolution on the planets around its neighbouring stars. These planets would in turn develop until they had intelligent, technically advanced races who would also carry out such work. Instead of life around stars being a random event, rare in appearance, that develops slowly to a semi-random plan, you would instead have a viral, hot-housing, guided development of life spreading out exponentially across the galaxy.
If evolution on this planet, and possibly our own evolution as a species, had been influenced in this way, how would we know if it had occurred?
One way that we could work out that it had happened would be if the fossil record showed a sudden and very strange leap in evolution during a very short period, a change that could not be explained by any natural event on our planet. Interestingly, such an event did occur about one billion years ago. Our planet is about four billion years old. For its first three-or-so billion years, very little evolution went on. Our planet contained mostly single-celled amoeba, exactly the type of organisms that would have existed before these special viruses had appeared to kick-start multi-cellular activity. Suddenly, in the blink of an eye geologically - multi-cellular organisms appear in the fossil record and there is an explosion of evolution, leading to a variety of multi-cellular organisms such as trilobites. This became known as the Cambrian Explosion.
Was the Cambrian Explosion caused by alien tailored viruses kick-starting evolution on Earth? It certainly fits the facts. Unfortunately, I can see no way to prove such a theory. It has to stay as a piece of speculation.
By comparison, if a virus-filled laser beam had been fired at our planet in recent times, when we were sufficiently advanced to record the event, we could prove that it had happened. If such an event had happened when we were sufficiently advanced, it's possible to guess how it would have been recorded. Here's a rough description:
Observers see that a nearby star has abruptly changes colour (as a laser beam from it focuses on our planet). The star becomes 'fiery' (due the laser light being scattered by our atmosphere). The star turning 'fiery' is accompanied by the emergence one or more epidemics (most likely isolated to particular species that share certain biological similarities). Animals of certain species become ill, showing symptoms of viral infection, but most recover. The records talk of fear and awe of the fiery star and religious ceremonies are carried out in an attempt to placate the star's malevolent effect. Eventually, the fiery star returns to normal and people go back to their normal routines (but unknown to them, specialised genes have been added to the genetic code of one or more species, according to a plan developed by the civilisation living on a planet around that fiery star).
Sounds exotic and fantastic? Well, this is where things get really interesting...
A year-or-so ago, I wrote an article about a very strange series of events during our Classical Era. This was the laser transmissions from Sirius article. It put forward the strange but scientifically feasible idea that Earth received a laser transmission from Sirius in the first millennium before Christ. During that time, the star Sirius, normally a bright, white star in our sky, was reported by many different sources to have blazed a fiery red for years on end, during a period of centuries, and in particular that it blazed red towards the end of the Northern Hemisphere Summer, the origin of the phrase the 'dog days of summer' named after the Dog Star itself. During that time, according to multiple reports, the fiery star brought epidemics that affected men and dogs.
When I wrote that article, I couldn't understand why a transmission from Sirius would bring epidemics. Why would an advanced alien civilisation want to send us diseases? Rabies seemed the closest disease to the epidemics described; why on Earth would advanced aliens beam us rabies on a laser?
This strange evidence now makes much more sense, in the light of the new research on viruses' role in cellular evolution. The prime reason why the star Sirius turned 'fiery' all those centuries ago was specifically to send us one or more tailored viruses.
If that is the case, what viruses were sent Earth? What genetic codes were the virus designed to install and what species were they designed to affect? The reports from Ancient Greece make it clear that people did succumb to some sort of illness when the star flared red; they were astroboletus or 'star-struck'. What did the illness(es) they succumbed to do to them? Were our ancestors deliberately targeted by an alien civilisation from Sirius and infected with a gene-altering virus?
It sounds very far-fetched as an idea, but as far as I can tell, it is thoroughly grounded in solid science. Certainly, psychologically, it isn't an idea that'll be popular with most people. The possibility that evolution on our planet - including the evolution of our own species - has been guided by a remote alien civilisation makes us look like a bunch of lab mice. Very humbling!
There is one more strange consequence of this 'tailored viruses fired at planets to artificially guide evolution' idea. Perhaps the media outlets need to be buzzing with a shocking new development. Intelligent Design is now a scientifically viable idea; the only problem is that God's not involved at all, the job's been done by our Dog Star's Little Green Men… :-)