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Superkingdom Viruses

Evolution and importance

viroids, viral illnesses, genetic engineering, gene therapy, biotechnology companies

Three theories have been put forth to explain the origin of viruses. One theory suggests that viruses are derived from more complex intracellular parasites that have eliminated all but the essential features required for replication and transmission. A more widely accepted theory is that viruses are derived from normal cellular components that gained the ability to replicate autonomously. A third possibility is that viruses originated from self-replicating RNA molecules. This hypothesis is supported by the observation that RNA can code for proteins as well as carry out enzymatic functions. Thus, viroids may resemble “prehistoric” viruses.

Because viral processes so closely resemble normal cellular processes, abundant information about cell biology and genetics has come from studying viruses. Basic scientists and medical researchers at university and hospital laboratories are working to understand viral mechanisms of action and are searching for new and better ways to treat viral illnesses. Many pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies are actively pursuing effective antiviral therapies. Viruses can also serve as tools. Because they are efficient factories for the production of viral proteins, viruses have been harnessed to produce a wide variety of proteins for industrial and research purposes. A new area of endeavor is the use of viruses for gene therapy. Because viruses are programmed to carry genetic information into cells, they have been used to replace defective cellular genes. Viruses are also being altered by genetic engineering to kill selected cell populations, such as tumor cells. The use of genetically engineered viruses for medical intervention is a relatively new field, and none of these therapies is widely available. However, this is a fast-growing area of research, and many clinical trials are now in progress. The use of genetically engineered viruses extends beyond the medical field. Recombinant insect viruses have agricultural applications and are currently being tested in field trials for their effectiveness as pesticides.

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