Dr. Anjeanette Roberts’s Lecture During the 2nd Intl Conf on the Origin of Life and the Universe (21.05.2017-Ritz Carlton)
Now it’s Doctor Anjeanette Roberts’ turn. Dr. Roberts is a research scholar at Reasons to Believe. From 1997 to 2001, she conducted postdoctoral research in viral pathogenesis.
In 2005 she had an NIH award of merit due to her research on infectious diseases.
Between the years 2006-2013 she worked as an assistant professor in Virginia University Microbiology Department.
In this University she was the head of Microbiology, Immunology and Infectious Diseases Department.
Until 2015 she carried out her research in Yale, Rivendell Institute as a visiting scholar/researcher.
Dr. AJ.Roberts will deliver her speech, “Why did God creat Viruses?” The floor is yours please.
I’m very happy to be returning for the second conference, ‘Origin of the Life and the Origin of the Universe’.
I’m very happy to be here in Turkey. People here are very hospitable, very warm. Thank you very much for that.
May God bless you all. So how many of you perhaps when you see a Picture of some blood, feel bad? Would you raise your hand up? Because I will show such pictures. If you are going to feel bad, can you please close your eyes? They’re not nice, they’re pictures of diseases.
I’m going to talk about measles. And when I mention about measles, please close your eyes. Because the pictures are not nice, you may not want to see them. When others learn I’m a virologist, they often ask, “Are viruses alive?” When they learn that I’m a Christian, they often ask, “Why would a good God create viruses?”
I love to address questions like these and have spent years thinking about viruses and their roles in creation and human sickness, and their use as tools in mitigating suffering, and many other things.
As a Christian who is also a scientist I often use scientific discoveries to help others see how God reveals himself to us in creation. Christian scriptures (for example passages in Psalm 19 and Romans 1:20ff) actually tell us that creation or nature actually points people to the realization of God’s existence. But not just that, nature actually reveals God’s power and attributes to us as well. In other words, observing creation, even through scientific discoveries, doesn't just point us to God but shows us what the Creator is like. Psalm 19:1-4 The heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display his craftsmanship. Day after day they continue to speak; night after night they make him known.
They speak without a sound or word; their voice is never heard.
Their message has gone throughout the earth, and their words to all the world. Romans 1:19-20 “They know the truth about God because He has made it obvious to them. For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky.
Through everything God made, they can clearly see His invisible qualities—His eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God.”
Now certainly some viruses can be very dangerous and even deadly. Historically, viruses were identified because of the diseases they caused (e.g., tobacco mosaic virus, rabies virus, bird flu, and smallpox), and since many of these viruses cause severe disease and suffering and many others lead to death, then the question, “Why would a good God create viruses?” is a great question!
Of course this question assumes that viruses are bad, causing sickness, suffering, and sometimes even death. Like herpes virus or measles virus, which kills 15 people every hour.
Now of course we know of viruses like bird flu or fowlpox, or herpes, or measles — which kills 15 people every hour — and hemorrhagic fever viruses that can affect entire populations and cause widespread disease and mortality even on a global scale.
High mortality rates occur with some viruses like the most recent outbreak of Ebola virus or the historic 1918 Influenza epidemic. But these viruses are the rare, yet notable, exceptions. Recent technological advances and the advent of metagenomics have changed the way we understand viruses.
Scientists now have the capability to extract DNA from environmental samples and sequence multiple organisms at once.
Through such analyses we now realize that Earth is filled with a truly vast array and diversity of viruses. Everywhere we find life, we find viruses. And we find them in overwhelming abundance! A single milliliter of ocean water or a gram of soil can harbor 10 — 100 million virus particles or more! Viruses outnumber all other living things by a factor of 10 to 1 or even 100 to 1 or more! The vast majority of viruses infect single-cell organisms like bacteria and archaea. It is estimated that there are 1031 viruses on Earth, that’s a one followed by 31 zeroes. That’s 10 million times more viruses than stars in the universe. That number can be very hard to comprehend or imagine. If we could weigh all the viruses on Earth together, they would equal the weight of 75 million blue whales. If we could line up all the viruses end to end, they would stretch out 42 million light-years. That’s almost 20 round-trips to the Andromeda Galaxy!
Considering most viruses are on the order of 0.1–0.01 microns,
or one one-thousandth the width of a human hair, that’s a lot of viruses! Yet only an infinitesimal fraction of an infinitesimal fraction of viruses are associated with human disease, or diseases of any kind. The vast majority of viruses on planet Earth are not associated with disease or suffering. In fact they are critical for sustaining balance in Earth’s ecological webs and providing higher ordered organisms ecological space in which to thrive. Now, one of the other questions I am often asked is, “Are Viruses Alive?”
I want to address this question next because the answer is important in understanding what may or may not be true about viral origins. Viruses are comprised of two basic components: proteins and nucleic acid (RNA or DNA). (Some viruses have a third basic component: a lipid envelope.) They display incredible diversity in size, shape, replication strategies, genomic composition, genomic organization, and in the kinds of cells and animals they infect.
This is an electron micrograph of viruses that infect bacteria, tobacco plants, animals and people (rabies), and cause infantile diarrhea. Estimates suggest that there are 1–3 million different viruses infecting vertebrates. And one study in bats indicates that more than 90 percent of viruses infecting mammals have yet to be identified. Despite such huge virodiversity (a phrase indicating viral diversity), all viruses share one thing in common: they cannot replicate or make more viruses on their own. Living things consume nutrients, grow and develop, capture and/or produce energy, remove waste, and have the capacity to sexually or asexually reproduce. Viruses do not. Viruses cannot harvest nutrients from their environment.
They absolutely require a living cell to provide resources, machinery, and energy to produce and assemble viral components into viral progeny or new viruses. Signals in viral proteins and nucleic acids hijack cellular machinery for viral protein synthesis as viruses depend on cellular metabolic processes and enzymes for provision of nucleobases and amino acids—building blocks for progeny virions. Viruses also depend on intracellular transport systems for many steps in viral replication and assembly. Without living cells, viruses would never replicate. Replication of viruses is best captured by a paper copy machine metaphor.
Viruses are like the paper that goes in with information written on it. But the copier provides the ink and paper (the resources), the energy, and the machinery to produce more copies of the paper. Now the metaphor fails a bit, because each copy is not necessarily perfect. Viruses can accrue changes over time as cellular replication machinery may introduce changes (or errors) to viral genetic sequences. And although viruses are not living they play a critical role in the history of life on Earth and in sustaining biodiversity today. Another question that often comes up is, “Where Do Viruses Come From?” Viruses that infect humans, like all other viruses, are of unknown etiology.
We know that some viruses cross over from animal populations to humans populations, like bird and swine flus and rabies.
But the ultimate origin of viruses is unknown. We don’t know where viruses originated. But because they are absolutely dependent upon living cells to make more viruses, many scientists consider them as escape genes from once living cells.
Somehow they have escaped a functional cell and maintained the necessary components needed to replicate themselves and most have likely accrued changes and added various components over time and through continued replication in a variety of organisms. But this scenario of viral origins is problematic in many ways, not the least of which is that viruses often demonstrate a strict host specificity. They are unable to successfully enter a variety of different kinds of cells or hosts.
This would make it difficult to pick up a variety of components from vastly different cells. And a second complexity is that viruses are so radically diverse from one another in replication strategies and host specificities. These factors challenge a naturalistic scenario of viral origins. Consider this. If it were not for viruses, bacteria and other single-cell organisms would rule the Earth, sequestering all nutrients and filling all ecological niches, making higher life and the survival of multicellular organisms impossible. Bacteriophage (viruses that infect bacteria and archaea) kill 40–50 percent of the bacteria in Earth’s oceans on a daily basis. This releases an abundance of biogenic and organic molecules into Earth’s biogeochemical cycle and food chain for the survival of other organisms. Bacteriophage also help keep our planet’s ecological niches and our bodies’ microbiomes in balance so that we are not overrun by bacteria. If not for a balance between bacterial replication and phage-mediated death, Earth would be a giant ball of bacteria, as they are masters of replication and adaptation. Left unchecked by viruses, rampant bacterial growth would leave no room or food sources for other organisms to survive and thrive.
Viruses that infect and control bacterial populations contribute to Earth’s ecological balance and biogeochemical cycles and also to Earth’s precipitation cycles. For precipitation to occur particles in Earth’s atmosphere must serve as seeds for nucleation events that initiate precipitation.
Viruses, and bacterial proteins that are aerosolized after viral lysis, serve as seeds for precipitation. And of course higher life thrives because of Earth’s abundant precipitation cycles. Certainly, many viruses associated with human disease have animal origins. These zoonotic viruses are transferred to humans when humans come in contact with animals that harbor the virus even in the absence of disease. It is unclear what roles these viruses may have in nature before making the jump into human hosts. It’s possible that some may exist to regulate animal populations, similar to the way bacteriophage regulate bacterial populations. It is also possible that many may have symbiotic effects in nature and only rarely result in disease when exposure and transmission to susceptible hosts occur from imperfect management of creation.
Viruses that have symbiotic effects have in fact been discovered. Once unnoticed because no outward sign of disease led to inquiry, viruses that allow plants, insects and other organisms to survive under otherwise challenging environmental conditions continue to be discovered. Some viruses allow infected plants survival advantages under drought or cold temperatures that prove detrimental to un-infected plants.
Some viral infections render mice and human hosts resistant to other subsequent infections. No doubt many more symbiotic relationships will be discovered as we continue to explore the roles of the nearly countless viruses surrounding us. In addition to symbiotic effects and critical roles in maintaining ecological webs and biogeochemical and precipitation cycles, viruses may even be part of God’s creation, providentially given for our use and management.
Viruses supply an abundant matrix of untapped genes and delivery systems to address many of the challenges we face in human health and disease. Regardless of their origins (or associated diseases), many viruses are tools allowing scientists to uncover keys of cellular biology, genetically alter organisms, and mitigate disease. To name just a few ways that we wield viruses for good: viruses are harnessed for use in gene therapy, cancer therapy, gene-editing, vaccine production, and nanomedicine delivery. Much of what we know about molecular and cellular biology has been knowledge gained through virus studies.
This table highlights 15 discoveries linked to Nobel prizes where viruses have been used to discover such things as DNA rather than proteins serves as the substance of heredity; the triple base codon nature of the genetic code; tumor suppressor genes and RNA splicing. Viruses can also be manipulated and engineered to use in an arsenal to fight diseases. We can use viruses to fight cancers, congenital and genetic diseases, and viral and bacterial diseases. The best known use of viruses in this respect is probably their use in vaccines such as the polio vaccines. Prior to the advent of the polio vaccines, an outbreak of polio in the US led to more than 50,000 infections in one year (1952), over 21,000 cases of paralysis and over 3000 deaths.
Since the advent of the inactivated and oral polio vaccines, global immunization campaigns have dropped the number of cases from over 350,000 cases per year in 1988 to less than 500 cases per year in 2013. Eradication of infectious polio virus may be obtained by the end of 2018 according to the latest WHO (World Health Organization) targets. Viruses are now being used to fight cancers directly and as shuttles to deliver gene editing molecules in fights against cancers such as sarcoma, melanoma and myeloma.
Gene editing, using viruses as delivery mechanisms, may one day eliminate other congenital and genetic diseases as well as chronic infectious diseases such as HIV. The potential use of viruses to help fight human disease and enhance agricultural products is immense and exciting. Viruses may prove to be the best molecular tool for human use ever known. Viruses may also be the next best weapon to fight multi-drug resistant bacteria too! Multi-drug resistant bacteria are still susceptible to bacteriophage lysis. Identifying and isolating the appropriate phage and determining ways to keep the phage lytic will allow us to keep some of themes pathogenic bacteria in check when antibiotics continue to fail.
So, although a few viruses are remarkably bad, we cannot paint all viruses with the same brush. In fact, life as we know it would not be possible and our thriving as human beings and caretakers of creation would be impossible without the vast array of viruses that fill the Earth. It is clear that some viruses were certainly part of the created order since the vast majority of life and biodiversity on Earth would not be possible without bacteriaphage. Apart from direct creation, some subset of viruses may originate from the natural order of decay, as cellular castoffs or escape genes. Some may lead to disease primarily through our ignorance and mismanagement of creation. Still others seem to be providentially supplied by a good Creator for our discovery, harvest and transformation in mitigating disease and suffering and even improving creation care. Individually created or occasional cast-offs, creation’s design certainly necessitates a vast storehouse of diverse viruses for keeping life on Earth well regulated, whether in the human gut or the global biogeochemical cycles. With such an abundance of stillunknown viruses, we have so much more to discover! And so many reasons to marvel at God’s amazing creation and providence. Thanks be to God.