Thursday, November 02, 2006
These risks go for genome science as well, which has the added bonuses of ethical nightmares, political wrangling...and that damn dinosaur movie. All this aside, resurrecting old foes (and possibly friends) from fossilized genes could well help solve modern problems. Looking at how our ancestors worked can often inform us about how we live, and how our ancestors' competitors worked can inform us how to fight their descendants. Sadly, bees in amber don't so readily give up their DNA for sequencing, so we have to use another source: modern genomes, extrapolating back to old ones from where we are today.
The human genome is full of old retroviruses that integrated themselves into our DNA hundreds, thousands, and millions of years ago, but no longer seem to do anything: they're "junk DNA." Understanding how they got to be that way could help us fight modern retroviruses like HIV, and French researchers recently made a major step in this understanding: they resurrected an ancient retrovirus out of the human genome.
No one disputes that this is immensely cool research, but many are saying that it either shouldn't have been done at all, or should have been done under different conditions. My reaction is that yes, it probably should have been done in a Level 4 facility, but there is no question it should have been done. The benefits of studying this virus could be astounding. I also hope that the virus is really as "wimpy" as the researchers claim it to be: we don't need 12-Monkeys scenario popping up.