A surprise in nature's operating system

The 20th century saw enormous progress made against bacteria, through the development of antibiotics like penicillin. We have the chance to make the same progress against viruses, but the solution will raise more basic questions.

DNA polymorphism from Scientific Creative QuarterlyYou can think of DNA as nature's operating system. It carries all the instructions needed to make you, or a grape. And the grape has more genes. (Picture from the Scientific Creative Quarterly.)

The reason is that the DNA operating system runs McAfee. As Michael Specter writes this week in The New Yorker, roughly 10% of our DNA consists of retrovirus code, the equivalent of a McAfee anti-viral's virus signatures.

Evolution encoded these retroviruses in our genes. They represent long-dead diseases that once threatened our ancestors with extinction, until this detection code was added. Grapes probably have more code because they've been around longer.

All this offers intriguing questions, not just about human viruses but about computing as well.

  • Would it make sense to put anti-viral signatures in the center of the Internet, in its operating system as it were, rather than at the edge, as is done now?
  • Can we encode the HIV virus into the human genome, rendering it harmless, and should we?

The 20th century saw enormous progress made against bacteria, through the development of antibiotics like penicillin. We have the chance to make the same progress against viruses, but the solution will raise more basic questions.

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