Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Giant virus rises from the ice

The recently-discovered virus, Pithovirus sibericum, as
imaged by an electron microscope.  The virus is 1.5 μm long
and 0.5 μm wide.  Credit: Julia Bartoli and Chantal Abergel,
Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Aix–Marseille
Université.  Image source.
There has been quite a stir today about a giant virus recently found frozen in the ice of Siberia.  At 1.5 μm by 0.5 μm, it is the largest virus ever found, but still far too small to see with the naked eye.  It is reported to be 30,000 years old by carbon dating, which would place it at around the time of the extinction of Neanderthals.  Interestingly, it appears to be harmless to humans and animals, only infecting amoebae.

Many press releases claim that this virus was "revived" from its dormant frozen state.  When it comes to viruses, however, the definition of "alive" is unclear.  Viruses do not eat and grow like other forms of life.  They are more akin to complex natural machinery, relying on living organisms to spread and multiply.  It comes as no surprise to me, then, that this virus would still be functional, whether it has been frozen for 4000 years or 30,000 years.  As long as it is not destroyed on a chemical level, a virus will not truly "die."

According to evolutionary theory, viruses evolved from more complex forms of life, likely parasites.  As they became more and more dependent on their hosts, they gradually lost attributes that would define them as organisms while maintaining biological signatures such as proteins and DNA (or RNA).  From a creationist standpoint, they still seem to be too complex to have arisen naturally without the input of an intelligent designer, though it is possible that a simple unicellular organism could lose enough information over a short period of time to effectively become a virus.  Perhaps that is why this ancient virus is so large; it is closer to its biologic ancestry.  However, it seems more likely that these strange constructs were specially designed from the beginning.

The obvious question is why God would create viruses if they are one of the leading causes of disease today.  To be blunt, the answer is not known and may never be known.  However, there are some hypotheses regarding this matter.  The first possibility is that they were created at the Fall as part of the Curse.  I find this scenario highly unlikely and theologically challenging, but I can't completely rule it out.  The second possibility is that they were created for beneficial purposes and have since lost their original use, either by genetic degradation or by the complete ecologic revamping brought about by the Flood.  Several years ago I heard a creationist scientist report on a virus that repairs the DNA of certain species of algae damaged by ultraviolet radiation.  I am having trouble finding a source to link to, but that find bolstered the proposal that viruses were originally created as genetic repair and maintenance mechanisms, able to spread necessary genes across reproductive boundaries, such as between the created kinds.  As the ecosystem radically changed with the Fall and the Flood, however, these viruses lost their place but continued to function.  Like an automated mining rig released in an office building, the viral functions that were once beneficial suddenly became destructive when they were applied in ways for which they were not designed.

When I see viruses like this, I am reminded that we live in a broken and ruined world.  Fortunately, this is not our permanent home, and a time will come when the One who first set up the creation will come back to undo the damage we have done, and we will live in a restored world with Him for all time.

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