Saturday, December 4

Viruses may exist ‘in other parts of the universe’, warns scientist | Infectious diseases

The Covid pandemic has already turned life as we know it upside down, and it has undoubtedly led some people to want to leave the planet.

Now, a leading scientist has warned that viruses can not only be found on Earth, but could occur, if life existed, in other parts of the universe.

Professor Paul Davies, an astrobiologist, cosmologist and director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University, said the idea of ​​aliens ranges from microbial life to the super advanced civilizations that might be signaling us.

But Davies backed the idea that a wide range of microbes and other microscopic agents would probably be needed to support life as a whole, whatever form it takes. And it seems that viruses, or something that plays a similar role, could be part of the equation.

“Viruses are actually part of the web of life,” Davies said. “I would hope that if you have microbial life on another planet, you will surely have, if it is to be sustainable and sustained, all the complexity and robustness that will accompany the possibility of exchanging genetic information.”

Viruses, Davies said, can be thought of as mobile genetic elements. In fact, a number of the studies have Suggested genetic material of viruses has been incorporated into human genomes and other animals through a process known as horizontal gene transfer.

“A friend of mine thinks that most, but certainly a significant fraction, of the human genome is actually viral in origin,” said Davies, whose new book, What’s Eating the Universe ?, was published last week.

According to Davies, although the importance of microbes to life is well known, the role of viruses is less appreciated. But he said that if there is cellular life on other worlds, viruses or something similar, it would probably exist to transfer genetic information between them.

Furthermore, he said, alien life is unlikely to be homogeneous.

“I don’t think it’s a matter of you going to another planet, and you’re just going to be one kind of microbe and it’s perfectly happy. I think it has to be a complete ecosystem ”, he added.

While the idea of ​​alien viruses may sound alarming, Davies suggests that humans don’t have to panic.

“Dangerous viruses are those that are highly adapted to their hosts,” he said. “If there is a truly alien virus, then it is likely not even remotely dangerous.”

Davies’ comments come after a study, published in late August, suggested that signs of life beyond our solar system can be detected in two to three years.

But the need to consider entire ecosystems doesn’t just apply when considering extraterrestrial life.

Davies, whose conversation is peppered with nods to former colleagues and associates, from Stephen Hawking to Fred Hoyle, the great, if unconventional, former director of the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Cambridge, said it’s also important that humans try to colonize. another planet.

“Most people think of, well, we would need to have very large spaceships, and then recycle things for the very long journey, and then all the technology that you would need to carry,” he said.

“Actually, the most difficult part of this problem is what would be the microbiology that you would have to take; It’s not good to just take some pigs and potatoes and things like that and hope that when you get to the other extreme everything will be wonderful and self-sustaining. “

While Covid has left most of us with an unclear view of viruses, Davies said that not all of them are bad. “In fact, for the most part, they are good,” he said.

Among their positive functions, viruses that infect bacteria, known as phages, can help keep bacterial populations in check. while viruses have also been linked to a number of other important processes, of helping plants survive in extremely hot soils for influence biogeochemical cycles. And, as Davies points out, a significant fraction of the human genome may be remnants of ancient viruses.

“We hear about the microbiome within us, and there is a planetary microbiome,” Davies said. But, he argues, there is also a human and planetary virus, where viruses play a fundamental role in nature.

“I think without viruses, there may be no sustained life on planet Earth,” he said.

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