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The Origin and Evolution of Viruses as Molecular Organisms


Viruses are the most abundant life forms and the repertoire of viral genes is greater than that of cellular genes. It is also evident that viruses have played a major role in driving cellular evolution, and yet, viruses are not part of mainstream biology, nor are they included in the Tree of Life. A reason for this major paradox in biology is the misleading dogma of viruses as viral particles and their enigmatic evolutionary origin. This article presents an alternative view about the nature of viruses based on their properties during the intracellular stage of their life cycle, when viruses express features comparable to those of many parasitic cellular species. Supporting this view about the nature of viruses is a novel hypothetical evolutionary model for their origin from parasitic cellular species that fused with their host cells. By losing their membrane and cellular structure within the host cell, these new types of parasitic species gained full access to precursors for the synthesis of their specific molecules and to the host’s information processing machineries, such as translation, which created unique parasitic and evolutionary opportunities. To identify viruses during their intracellular stage of their life cycle, in which their specific molecules are free or dispersed within the host cell, this paper introduces the concept of “molecular structure” and labels viruses as “molecular organisms.” Among the extant viruses, the life cycle of poxviruses and other complex viruses that fuse with their host cells provides compelling evidence for the fusion model. One of the most remarkable implications of fusion model is that new viral lineages originated from parasitic cellular species throughout the history of life, and that this process might still be active. Surprisingly, it appears that several parasitic cellular species are currently evolving into molecular organisms. More remarkably though, according to this model, several parasites that are currently classified as cellular organisms are in fact genuine molecular organisms. The current evidence for the fusion hypothesis is strong and it is fully testable using both experimental and phylogenetic approaches. The academic and research implications of this model, which supports the inclusion of viruses in the Tree of Life, are highly significant. Some of these implications are discussed in more detail in two other articles of this series, which presents a unifying model for the origin and evolution of cellular and viral domains, including the origin of life.

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Correspondence to Claudiu Bandea.

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Bandea, C. The Origin and Evolution of Viruses as Molecular Organisms. Nat Prec (2009).

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  • viral evolution
  • cellular evolution
  • Tree of Life
  • history of virology
  • poxviruses

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