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35 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The startling (and scary) role played by viruses in biological evolution
A major thesis of this amazing book is that plants and animals including most significantly humans co-evolve with viruses. The term "virolution," presumably coined by Dr. Ryan, who is both a physician and an evolutionary biologist, comes from the words "virus" and "evolution" but also suggests the word "revolution." The idea is that instead of being merely agents of...
Published on 19 July 2009 by Dennis Littrell

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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Certainly not the most important book since Dawkin's Selfish Gene
The opening chapters were interesting, if somewhat old news, about endogenous retroviruses and their possible roles in directing human evolution. There was interesting background into Darwin and Wallace, DNA discovery, virus epidemics. There were a number of passages that I underlined as interesting. The problems began when large screeds of padding were encountered in the...
Published on 1 Aug 2011 by Stephen J. Wylie


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35 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The startling (and scary) role played by viruses in biological evolution, 19 July 2009
By 
Dennis Littrell (SoCal/NorCal/Maui) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: Virolution (Paperback)
A major thesis of this amazing book is that plants and animals including most significantly humans co-evolve with viruses. The term "virolution," presumably coined by Dr. Ryan, who is both a physician and an evolutionary biologist, comes from the words "virus" and "evolution" but also suggests the word "revolution." The idea is that instead of being merely agents of pathology, viruses can also work together with their host to help it survive. Ryan gives the example of grey squirrels imported from America invading the territory of red squirrels in Britain. He writes:

"At first naturalists assumed that the grey squirrel was winning the survival battle because it was larger and more aggressive than the native counterpart, but now we know that the grey squirrel is carrying a squirrel pox virus that causes no disease symptoms in its symbiotic partner but appears to be lethal to the red squirrel." (p. 96)

In other words what we have here is war by an organism's own viral pathogens! Survival of the fittest may include carrying around lethal viruses that can wipe out your ecological competition. Ryan notes "We believe that HIV-1, the main virus of AIDS, was transferred to people from a specific group of chimpanzees. We also know that, in chimpanzees, HIV-1 grows freely and reproduces in their internal organs and tissues, but it causes no evidence of disease." (p. 86)

So what apparently happened is some bush meat eaters shot some chimps, ate and/or sold the meat and humans got the virus. Revenge of the dead chimp! Well, perhaps. But look at it this way. Imagine humans in prehistory or even humans a few centuries ago in the Congo jungle looking to take over some chimp territory. After some close contact, the virus jumps from the chimps to humans and the humans die. Survival of the fittest!

Ryan refers to this as an example of "aggressive symbiosis," and this is how it works in general: two similar species occupying similar ecological niches come into contact. Which is to prevail? One carries a virus like a loaded gun in its tissues. The virus jumps to the other species and typically is extraordinarily virulent and kills them. Or perhaps there is a dueling of viruses, one from each species. At some point the only survivors are those with immunity to the viruses.

Ryan makes a further point with this example (quoting Max Essex on the deliberate use of a myxomatosis virus to kill rabbits in Australia): "The...virus killed...some 99.8% of the rabbits. But then two things happened. Number one - within four years, the resistant minority grew so you had a different population of disease-resistant rabbits... And number two - the myxomatosis virus that remained [as a persistent infection in the rabbits] was less virulent, so I think there is crystal-clear evidence that both the host and the virus attenuated themselves for optimal survival in that situation." Furthermore (and this brings us back to the previous point), any new rabbits brought in would be at a disadvantage because they would have no immunity to the virus and the surviving rabbits would. (pp. 87-88)

In other words looked at from an evolutionary perspective, host and virus worked together in a mutualistic symbiosis. In my mind this raises the question, what really did happen to the Neanderthal? We do know what happened to the natives of the Americas when they came into contact with the smallpox virus carried by the Europeans. Could a virus from homo sapiens have wiped out the Neanderthal, or at least helped humans become the sole hominid survivors?

In the largest sense, this idea of host and virus working together would seem to be more powerful than any kind of sharp tooth and massive claw in the struggle for survival. The old idea of survival of the fittest must now be seen in a different light. I have said for many years that "everything works toward an ecology" and "everything works toward a symbiosis," meaning that in a typical environment, if one species is able to work together with another, they may enjoy an advantage over rivals. Consequently, those species that are able to form symbiotic relationships are the ones more likely to survive. What this means for evolutionary theory, as Dr. Ryan has pointed out, is that symbiosis is a much more important part of evolutionary biology than has previously been thought. My guess is that the revolution begun by Lynn Margulis, who first saw the eukaryotic cell as a mutualistic development from parasitic relationships, will be accelerated by the work of Ryan and others to the point where the prevailing view from evolutionists will be that it is cooperation rather than competition that most characterizes fitness.

And that is what makes this book so important. It signals a great shift in our understanding of how evolution works.

But that is not all. Ryan shows that the so-called "junk DNA" in genomes is anything but. Much of it is viral ("endogenous retroviruses") and it is there as evidence that humans and pre-humans went through many periods of aggressive symbiosis including the horrid plague stage. We now see that plagues, from an evolutionary perspective, are common and part of how the evolutionary process formed us. Furthermore Ryan writes about how viral genes can help with the development of the embryo in the womb. In other words, viral DNA in part directs the protein building that makes for human beings, and indeed for many forms of life.

In the latter parts of the book Ryan explores the role of viruses in autoimmune diseases and cancer. He also considers the role of hybridization in evolutionary change and that of epigenetics. Particularly interesting is the work Eva Jablonka and Marion J. Lamb that suggests that "new species might arise through the inheritance of acquired epigenetic changes," causing Ryan to remark, "they were resurrecting the long-discredited spectre of Lamarckian evolution." (p. 312)

The book is dense, difficult and perhaps revolutionary in scope.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Absolutely Fancinating, 6 Sep 2009
By 
Carol McNelis (Ireland) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Virolution (Paperback)
For anyone with an interest in biology and evolution this is a "must read" book.
As a non- biologist and non-graduate I did find some of the technical details a bit of a challenge but it is well worth the effort. Mr Porter may assert that the theories proposed are "statements of facts well known to virologists and evolutionary theorists" but surely the point is that while some of this information has been known to individual researchers and scientists, nobody until now has brought it to the attention of the general public. As a sufferer of rheumatoid arthritis I found the chapter on autoimmune diseases particularly interesting and it is reassuring to know that cures for arthritis, MS and and a host of other autoimmune conditions now seem to be within the realms of possibility.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Certainly not the most important book since Dawkin's Selfish Gene, 1 Aug 2011
By 
Stephen J. Wylie "steve2198" (Perth, Western Australia) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Virolution (Paperback)
The opening chapters were interesting, if somewhat old news, about endogenous retroviruses and their possible roles in directing human evolution. There was interesting background into Darwin and Wallace, DNA discovery, virus epidemics. There were a number of passages that I underlined as interesting. The problems began when large screeds of padding were encountered in the shape of tedious, often seemingly irrelevant, verbatim conversations the author has had with scientists, conference presentations, numerous (irrelevant) references to his previous books, facts about mitochondria and chloroplasts that were revealed decades ago, three chapters on human disease that may be linked to human endogenous retroviruses (HERV), and gene expression mechanisms (with an emphasis on epigenetic means) that appear unrelated to the presence of HERVs.

An entire chapter is devoted to epigenetics, which is referred to as the 'Genie'. The author struggles unsuccessfully to find a link between epigenetic gene expression and HERVs. One of the epigenetic mechanisms described, RNA interference, RNAi, is a significant means by which plants destroy invading viruses, yet the author appears not to be familiar with this phenomenon. Is it because it is unrelated to retroviruses?

There is very little mention made of the vast majority of non-retroviral viruses that inflict organisms and their contribution to evolution. Sure, many ancient retroviruses reside in our genomes, but the vast majority are inactive and do not appear to be actively expressed. Frank Ryan was not the first person to point this out. The impression I got was the author considers himself as a lone crusader convincing the scientific world that HERVs matter. The frequently made claim that most biologists are unaware of HERVs and their potential and actual roles is patently incorrect. A quick search on google scholar using the words "human endogenous retrovirus" gave ~15,000 hits on this subject published in 2010 and 2011 alone.

The author is not a virologist. He describes himself as a consultant physician. His research specialty is nutrition and gastroenterology, which might explain some of the obvious omissions in the book. The main message of the book, that HERVs played a role in human evolution could have been eloquently explained in one chapter. But one chapter a book does not make! The rest is padding, most irrelevant to the title, but nevertheless of possible interest to the lay reader. Virolution's main contribution is to cobble together some of the information on this topic and to present it quite lucidly. It's failing is what is missing. It is certainly not in the ballpark of the most important book since Dawkin's Selfish Gene!
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Compulsively Readable, 2 Sep 2009
By 
Mr. Paul Knight (UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Virolution (Paperback)
As a university graduate, I don't consider myself nave. But I strongly disagree with the prejudicial review of Julian Porter and found this a compulsively readable and groundbreaking book. Dr Ryan is well qualified to write what he does. He has been invited to write five review papers on the theme of this book for the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, as well as other papers for the Linnean Society and elsewhere, all of which is described, and referenced, in the book. I don't think these authoritative publications would respond in this way to something that wasn't innovative and important. In my view this book introduces a vibrant and radically different perspective on modern evolutionary biology, and in particular the strange, and very surprising structure of the human genome.

Several of the chapters in the book explain how this new perspective is helping our understanding of medical conditions like MS and cancer.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars fascinating review, 5 April 2010
By 
W. O. Mcmahon - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Virolution (Paperback)
Fascinating Book

I bought this book from Amazon after reading the article by Frank Ryan, "I Virus", in New Scientist. I'm an engineer and always been interested in evolution. I liked the friendly way the author introduced what for me was a completely new idea. He described the green sea-slug, where viruses make it possible for the slug only ever to feed once, after which it loses its mouth and becomes solar-powered. I thought that was amazing. But then - and I won't spoil the surprise - something deadly enters the slug's life, and we discover that there is a price to be paid for idleness.

Ryan then turns to the Darwinian story, showing how important this has been for science, before moving on to the real meat of the book. I got engrossed in the strange, deadly, and fascinating world of viruses and their interactions with the evolution of their hosts, and particularly humans. I had no idea viruses could do this. I found myself astonished, chapter after chapter, as the mystery deepened, leading to the explanation of "the paradox of the human genome".

The viruses in our genome make up 30 times the amount of DNA we have inherited from what Ryan calls the vertebrate component of our evolution - yeah thirty times - so we really are part virus in our genes. He goes on to explain the growing field of viral symbiosis in our internal chemistry and he shows how this is becoming important in diseases like cancer.

I have to admit that the whole book was very different from anything I've read before about evolution. I was fascinated and I would strongly recommend the book to other readers.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Flawed diamond of a book, 24 Sep 2009
By 
J. Taylor (Poole, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Virolution (Paperback)
Firstly the exceptionally good points about this book:
1) The subject matter, the role of viruses within the genome, is both highly relevant to our own ancestry and thus deeply fascinating
2) Ryan, as he seems fond of pointing out, has been on the front line of medical research and I felt the information was well up to date
Strong scientific evidence is given for endogenous viruses affecting the expression of 'coding DNA', by virtue of merely invading the vicinity, within the human genome. Certainly Ryan shows viruses to play an important in speciation by reproductive isolation.

The problem, (in my opinion), is that Ryan oversteps his mandate by waxing lyrical about the virtues of viral symbiosis at the expense of objectivity. Overstating the case, by putting its effects on a par with the effects of the mutation-plus-selection cycle in evolution, is less impressive at a scholarly level. On p156, Ryan claims "the truth is natural selection has little direct application to medicine", yet he must have read or known about George Williams & Randolph Nesse book on Darwinian medicine.

Despite the Ryan's extreme exhuberance, in a subject he is clearly passionate about, I would recommend anyone interested in the subject matter to read this book. Just make sure you also read "Life Ascending", by Nick Lane to get an up-to-date and balanced perspective of how evolution works.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very interesting but in parts over stated, 7 Dec 2011
By 
Big Bad Bill "Big Bad Bill" (Somwhere on the Celtic Fringe) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Virolution (Paperback)
I have long believed that transfer of alien DNA in the form of virus has played a major role in evolution. I have believed this ever since the discovery of transposons. There is much in this book that I agree with, because it confirms my own belief. However while I agree with the conclusions reported by Dr Ryan that HERVs act as unstable elements in the genome that can speed up genomic change and therefore are likely to have played a significant role in evolution, I have a problem with some aspects of the concept of viral symbiosis as described in this book. The author suggests that retrovirus' live within a host species adopted to survive their presence, and suggests that they give that species an advantage by potentially killing off a rival species. He implies therefore that the transfer of HIV from chimps to man has been of some benefit to chimps. This could be true if HIV killed with the rapidity of Ebola or smallpox, but HIV and other retroviral based diseases tend to be slow burn. By the time a human competing for resources and or hunting chimps has died 9-11 years later he will have had plenty of time to impact on the chimp troop!

There is undoubtedly a type of symbiosis between the host and the virus but it is a parasite relationship. That defence mechanisms within the host eventually disarm the virus does not change this. Even the fact that in some cases 'Nature' has found uses for some of these viral genes in the human or other vertebrate does not change that, because by that time the original virus is really little more than a genetic fossil.

Still this is an interesting article, bringing together information from a diverse range of research and making it more readily available. He also goes beyond discussing his theory of viral symbiosis to discuss other forces of evolution such as hybridization and of particular interest to me epigenetics, which go beyond the standard mutation based theory as understood by most people with any interest in the topic.

I teach a mini module on human evolution and its importance to medicine to 1st year medical students, and will suggest that they read this book, but I will caution them not to let Dr Ryan's enthusiasm carry them away as I believe that to an extent he presents almost as fact what at this stage can only be seen as a theory all be it a very interesting and potentially important theory.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mindblowing, are we half virus?, 11 April 2010
This review is from: Virolution (Paperback)
I read this book because of an article the author wrote in New Scientist, 'I,Virus' (2010)about human DNA being almost half virus-based and this DNA was not simply junk DNA but comprised to some degree coding for functional proteins. To me this was a mindblowing idea. 'Virolution' takes us, the reader, through this story in a more detailed but fascinating personal account of the author's research into how evolution of the human species appears intricately intertwined with that of viruses. We humans appear to be in symbiosis with many viruses, with evolution operating at the level of the host parasite relationship and of course its obvious, if we only take time to think about it, but we are probably still evolving! Through a myriad of interviews with eminent scientists Ryan breaks this complex topic into digestible components that are fun and enjoyable to read for the non-biologist or slightly rusty x-biologist (me). Yet this book is fully informative. Ryan builds up his argument with solid science. Some may argue that the science is not new. But why this book is so amazing and mindblowing is that Ryan collates all of the scientific knowledge brilliantly, acknowledges credit where due, and incredibly succinctly shows how evolution occurs not just by the slow process of inheritance of adaptive gene mutation , but also through epigenetic mechanisms and horizontal gene transfer through viruses and hybridisation.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Are viruses really living organisms ?, 17 Sep 2009
By 
Marc Van Regenmortel (Strasbourg, France) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Virolution (Paperback)
This book reflects current rethinking about the nature and origin of viruses, partly arising from the recent discovery of a giant virus called Mimivirus. This virus which infects amoeba is larger and contains more genes than some small bacteria. This led some virologists to propose that viruses are living organisms which become "alive" in their natural hosts when the host, after being infected, is instructed to produce viral genes and virus particles.
Using metaphorical language of life and death, viruses are sometimes described as "living" forms that are "born" in their host cells, undergo a "life" cycle and can be "killed" by antiviral drugs. Most virologists do not take these metaphors seriously and do not accept that viruses are living organisms which have a place in the tree of life. Of course, it also depends on how you define life.
There is evidence that many viruses co-evolved with their hosts during millions of years of terrestrial evolution. The main message of this book is that viruses played a significant role in the evolution of life forms. It is known, for instance, that a considerable part of the human genetic material, sometimes referred to as junk DNA, consists of genes of endogenous retroviruses that entered the mammalian genetic lineage millions of years ago. Some of these viral genes are sometimes expressed in their hosts and can give rise, for instance, to certain proteins believed to have contributed in the past to the development of the placenta membrane of mammals.
The author argues that it is possible to interpret human evolution in terms of what he calls the symbiotic contribution of viruses. Symbiosis is the living together of two organisms and if one accepts that viruses are living organisms, their contribution to human evolution could indeed be described as a process of symbiogenesis. The author interprets symbiogenesis as a creative force in evolution which complements the accepted Darwinian mechanisms of mutation and natural selection as well as other contributions from hybridisation and epigenetics. The book also suggests that evolutionary processes induced by virus infection could help to explain the genetic basis of certain human diseases.
In his interpretations and speculations, the author stresses the importance of gene flow from viruses to cells. Other biologists tend to give equal importance to the flow of genes in the opposite direction, from cells to viruses. It reminds us that scientific facts never speak for themselves and can be interpreted in various ways. Virolution presents one interpretation in terms of living viruses but this will no doubt give rise to considerable debate.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Changes the way you view yourself and Humanity, 11 Feb 2014
This review is from: Virolution (Paperback)
Chapters flow really well (the first one being especially gripping) and cover a variety of topics within virology ranging from disease to co-evolution to ecology. A joy to read and indulge in, this book is recommended for anyone with a fascination and appreciation for the small.
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Virolution
Virolution by Frank Ryan (Paperback - 25 Jun 2009)
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