Viruses: life’s greatest teachers

The complexity of life and the systems that underpin it have given scientists much to puzzle over and so much remains cloaked in mystery. In our search for understanding it is far too easy for us to classify certain bodily mechanisms as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. This, however, ignores the many shades of grey that lie between which can provide fascinating insights into the workings of life. Utter the word ‘virus’ and it typically conjures up negative associations; we have categorised it in a binary way as ‘bad’. Scientists, on the other hand, have recently come up with some intriguing findings that refute this binary classification.

Jason Shepherd, a scientist at the University of Utah, has been studying the role of a gene known as ‘Arc’ for a number of years. The Arc gene is critical to memory function in the brains of mice. Curiously, this gene behaves differently in different animals, a finding that spurred scientists to dig deeper into the underlying mechanisms of this particular gene. It was found that the Arc gene has proteins that create structures that bear a very close resemblance to a virus; indeed, Shepherd thought they looked like the HIV virus.

Further scrutiny of the findings revealed that Arc is in fact closely related to HIV and behaves similarly to viruses in terms of what it does in the body. More specifically, retroviruses, e.g. HIV use a viral gene called ‘gag’ in order to construct protein structures which contain their genetic information. To put it simply, Arc sends genetic information between neurons in much the same way that retroviruses, like HIV, do. This has inevitably led to more and more questions cropping up, such as what effects does this have on the brain? Other recent research has indicated that Arc could play a critical role in disorders that affect the brain such as Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia as well as the mental deterioration that occurs as part of old age. For instance, young mice produce much more Arc than older mice.

The implications of this finding for the future of neuroscience research cannot be underestimated. Shepherd stated that “Beforehand, if I had said to any neuroscientist that this gene sort of acts like a virus, they would have laughed at me.” This could undoubtedly lead research in a completely new direction and upends the notion that biological functions can be reduced to either ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

Image credit: Lucas Vasques via Unsplash


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