“Everything about viruses is extreme,” Zimmer began. The number of viruses
on Earth is estimated to be 1 followed by 31 zeroes. Small as they are, if
you stacked them all up, the stack would reach 100 million light years. They
are the planet’s most abundant organism by far.
They’re fast. We take decades to reproduce. A flu virus can generate
billions of itself in us within hours. And they evolve
10,000 times faster than us, because they’re creatively sloppy about making
copies of their genomes, and they readily combine genes among varieties when
jointly infecting a cell. Each of us has four trillion viruses on board, in
1,500 all-too-fungible varieties.
Yet they can also be “time stealthy.” You may have a bout of childhood
chickenpox that is over in days, but the viruses may hide in your nervous
system and emerge decades later as shingles. HIV spreads inexorably because
of the lag of months or years between infection and visible symptoms.
The earliest record of a virus in human history is the smallpox marks you
can see on the mummified face of Ramses V, who died in 1145 BCE.
Viruses leave no fossils, but in a sense they ARE fossils, with the ancient
gene sequences of retroviruses buried in the genomes of every creature
they’ve infected over the ages. About 8 percent of our genome—some
100,000 elements—comes from viruses, and some of those genes now work for
us (enabling the mammalian placenta, for instance). One French scientist
revived from our genome a functioning 2-million-year-extinct virus just by
deducing the original code from the current variety in that stretch of DNA.
For billions of years the planet’s life consisted solely of bacteria and
their viruses, the bacteriophages. They became a planet force, and remain
so today, determining the makeup of the atmosphere, among other things. Every
day half of all the bacteria in the oceans are killed by phages. Some of
the carbon from the bodies sinks to the bottom, some is freed up to
fertilize other life. Ocean viruses cart around and transmit genes for
photosynthesis to previously incapable
microbes—10 percent of oceanic photosynthesis happens that way. If some
day we have to geoengineer the atmosphere to manage climate change, we may
want to employ the viruses that are already doing it.
Virology will be revolutionizing science for decades to come. One body of
investigation suggests that the so-called giant viruses may be a whole
fourth domain of life (added to bacteria, archaea, and eukaryotes). As the
ultimate parasite, viruses were assumed to come along after life evolved,
but they might an instrument of that evolution. One hypothesis is that
viruses took primordial RNA and generated DNA to better protect the
genes. They might have created life as we know it, a long time ago.