Paleovirology: Neitzsche Was Right

So it seems that ancient illnesses have helped shape our very makeup as humans.

These viral fragments are fossils that reside within each of us, carrying a record that goes back millions of years. Because they no longer seem to serve a purpose or cause harm, these remnants have often been referred to as “junk DNA.” Although many of these evolutionary relics still manage to generate proteins, scientists have never found one that functions properly in humans or that could make us sick.

That is until Thierry Heidmann who runs the laboratory at the Institut Gustave Roussy, on the southern edge of Paris, brought one to life. Heidmann long suspected that if a retrovirus happens to infect a human sperm cell or egg, which is rare, and if that embryo survives—which is rarer still—the retrovirus could have the evolutionary power to influence humans as a species becoming part of the genetic blueprint, passed from mother to child, and from one generation to the next, much like a gene for eye color or asthma.

I wonder, then, what accounts for my ‘outlandish sex appeal’ gene? Perhaps a heavy head cold that my great-great-great grandfather caught out on the bogs of County Mayo.

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