During one of the most intense flu seasons in recent years, it might seem hard to accept the possibility that a virus of any kind might have a beneficial impact… but according to a newly-published pair of scientific papers, it’s possible a prehistoric virus may have played a critical part in the evolution of the human brain — and traces of that virus might still be inside us.
Last month, researchers published the results of a groundbreaking study in the scientific journal Cell, in which they reveal how the genetic code of this ancient virus became intertwined with the genomes of all four-legged animals.
We already know that viruses are expert at grabbing and transporting genetic information from cell to cell. But with this study, researchers theorize this process is actually the key to the way our nervous system communicates — and may even play a role in our own self-awareness.
According to LiveScience, an earlier study from 2016 concluded that a huge chunk of the human genome is the result of “genetic hijacking” by viruses over the course of our development into Homo sapiens. These micro-parasites invade our cells and convert them into “factories” for making copies of themselves, but it seems some beneficial genetic traits — perhaps even aspects of our immune system — got copied as well.
The research team also claims the higher thought processes which set humans apart from other animals may be a partial result of this genetic hacking — which they have traced to a viral neuronal gene known as “Arc.” Arc sends genetic instructions to the nerve cell (via “messenger” RNA chains), which then builds containers called “capsids” to safely transport this information to other nerve cells.
LiveScience reports that experts in neuroscience will be joining the virus researchers to work out the extent of Arc’s role in the human genome… and what it does with the information it carries.