It was All Hallows Eve when the paper came out in Genome Research, and although there wasn’t the crackle of lightning bolts or a hunchbacked assistant called Igor, the announcement that researchers had resurrected an ancient human endogenous retrovirus (HERV) brought enough of the “how dare you resurrect an unknown virus” kind of response to warm the heart of Frankenstein devotees everywhere. I won’t discuss these aspects of Frakenvirus, it’s done better elsewhere. However, the whole HERV resurrection issue has interesting implications for Intelligent Design advocates.

Retroviruses are viruses that can insert copies of their own genetic material into our DNA. Sometimes mutations inactivate the virus, and the broken virus, now a HERV, gets passed along to our offspring. HERV’s litter the human genome. Astoundingly about 8% of our genome is broken viruses. We have roughly 5 times the number of broken viruses in our genome as we have protein coding genes. You would think this alone would give ID advocates pause, what kind of Intelligent Designer would leave chunks of broken virus throughout their creation[1]? But ID advocates say we can’t speculate about the nature of the Designer, maybe having more broken viral DNA than protein coding genes is a way of “Making An Artistic Statement” at the All Universe Gene Design Convention (best Carbon-based lifeform category), who knows?

More interestingly, the HERV-K family, which is the family of viruses the resurrected virus came from, is only found in primate genomes. When phylogeny studies are carried out, the phyogeny of broken viruses mirrors that of other phylogenies. Specifically humans and chimps are shown as sharing the most recent common ancestor. The ID advocates can’t claim this is an essential gene, that any Designer must incorporate into the genome, it’s a broken virus. As the only way to get the same broken viral DNA in the genomes of chimps and humans is common descent, this sort of looks bad for ID advocates. But then again, we are not allowed to speculate on the nature of the designer, perhaps the Designer was running late with their entry in the All Universe Gene Design Convention, and decided to snaffle some primates from Sol III for a quick and dirty bodge job (or again, maybe it was “Making An Artistic Statement”).

There are about 30 broken copies of the particular HERV-K resurrected by the researchers in our genome. The researchers took dozens of these, then used alignment to build a “consensus” virus. The resulting Frankenvirus was viable, infected human cell lines and did all the things a good retrovirus does. Resurrecting ancient proteins isn’t new, researchers have resurrected ancestral photopigments, and receptors using phylogenetic alignments, but this was the first time so many were resurrected at the same time, and shown to form a functional system. This is another big problem for ID advocates, Dembski in particular has been pushing the concept that enzymes are extremely functionally isolated, and that even slight perturbations of structure would inactivate them. If this were true, researchers would not be able to generate the Frakenvirus, or any other of the resurrected proteins, as you can never generate an exact structure from these alignments. Thus proteins cannot be extremely functionally isolated, as Dembski claims.

The Frankenvirus is a astounding piece of science, it is causing headaches for those people worried about resurrecting ancient plagues, but it is already a plague on some of the fundamental arguments of ID advocates.

Researchers Website:

[1] Okay, The Sirius Cybernetic Corporation, for one.

Dewannieux M, Harper F, Richaud A, Letzelter C, Ribet D, Pierron G, Heidmann T. Identification of an infectious progenitor for the multiple-copy HERV-K human endogenous retroelements. Genome Res. 2006 Oct 31

Reus, K HERV-K(OLD): the ancestor sequences of the human endogenous retrovirus family HERV-K(HML-2). J. Virol. 75 (2001), 8917–8926.

Johnson WE, Coffin JM. Constructing primate phylogenies from ancient retrovirus sequences. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1999 Aug 31;96(18):10254-60.