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Antediluvian deadly viruses

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It is very difficult to figure out when the influenza virus first started making animals sick. Studies of the history of major human epidemics suggest the flu has been around for at least one thousand years. "The certainty diminishes as we go further back into the past. We can say for certain that influenza has been around since 1918 because we have the 1918 virus. Before that time, we have to speculate or make an educated guess," said David Morens, of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in Popular Science magazine. By looking for clues in the contemporary accounts of disease outbreaks, Morens has concluded, with 95 percent certainty, that humans were getting the flu as far back as 1510 CE. His confidence drops to about 80 percent for epidemics dating to the 800s. "Maybe the 590 CE epidemic was influenza, but when we go back further than that, it is just 'Who knows?'" said Morens.

Meanwhile, virologists have tried to find the genetic origins of influenza. Michael Worobey of the University of Arizona compares the genomes of influenza viruses with those of similar viruses that have been sequenced, in an effort to draw up a kind of evolutionary tree for pathogens. According to this method, the flu shares an ancestor with something called the infectious salmon anemia virus. How long ago did the influenza and the salmon virus separate? That's tricky. Viral genomes change more rapidly than an animal's, in part because they don't waste time fixing replication errors. "Flu viruses accumulate a lot of mutations," said Worobey.

At the same time, some key parts of a virus genome are very stable. Worobey helped identify relatives of HIV, for example, that had evolved in isolation off the coast of Africa over the course of ten thousand years. Even after all that time, their genomes still look very much the same. Scientists have also found evidence of an HIV-related virus that became embedded in the genome of the ferret 8 million years ago (contradicting Young Earth Creationism and the geochronology of James Ussher). No one has found similar evidence of ancient influenza. But could its ancestor - the one it shares with the salmon virus - have gone back to the prehistoric dinosaurs? "For that, I don't have even a gut feeling. It's just kind of wide open," said Worobey. Tammy Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District (2005).

Luc Montagnier, of the Pasteur Institute, received a Nobel Prize in Medicine for his co-discovery of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). But Montagnier has never received a Crocoduck Award, unlike Kirk Cameron. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report found that each year two million Americans get infections that are antibiotic-resistant (evolution?). Korean researchers genetically engineered E. coli to produce gasoline. A Duke University team showed that monkeys with electrodes implanted in their brains could control two virtual arms at once, using just their thoughts.

A drop of virus from a monkey kills a human researcher in six weeks, read a NY Times headline in 1997. Elizabeth Griffin was helping to move a caged rhesus monkey infected with the herpes B virus, at the Yerkes Primate Research Center of Emory University, when the monkey flung a tiny drop of fluid, probably urine, at her face. It struck Griffin in her eye. After six weeks, paralyzed and weakened, Griffin died of complications from herpes B, which is a common benign virus in non-human primates but very rare and deadly in humans. 50 cases of primate-to-human transmission of the virus have been reported since 1932, when the first case of human exposure was seen. Most were the result of bites and scratches, not sexual intercourse or blood transfusions. The Yerkes Center conducts research in AIDS, neuroscience, gene therapy, SIV, simian foamy virus and other areas.

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