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Stud Hist Philos Biol Biomed Sci. 2016 Oct;59:125-34. doi: 10.1016/j.shpsc.2016.02.016. Epub 2016 Mar 7.

Are viruses alive? The replicator paradigm sheds decisive light on an old but misguided question.

Author information

1
National Center for Biotechnology Information, National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD 20894, USA. Electronic address: koonin@ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.
2
Department of Internal Medicine, UT Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, TX, 75235, USA.

Abstract

The question whether or not "viruses are alive" has caused considerable debate over many years. Yet, the question is effectively without substance because the answer depends entirely on the definition of life or the state of "being alive" that is bound to be arbitrary. In contrast, the status of viruses among biological entities is readily defined within the replicator paradigm. All biological replicators form a continuum along the selfishness-cooperativity axis, from the completely selfish to fully cooperative forms. Within this range, typical, lytic viruses represent the selfish extreme whereas temperate viruses and various mobile elements occupy positions closer to the middle of the range. Selfish replicators not only belong to the biological realm but are intrinsic to any evolving system of replicators. No such system can evolve without the emergence of parasites, and moreover, parasites drive the evolution of biological complexity at multiple levels. The history of life is a story of parasite-host coevolution that includes both the incessant arms race and various forms of cooperation. All organisms are communities of interacting, coevolving replicators of different classes. A complete theory of replicator coevolution remains to be developed, but it appears likely that not only the differentiation between selfish and cooperative replicators but the emergence of the entire range of replication strategies, from selfish to cooperative, is intrinsic to biological evolution.

KEYWORDS:

Evolvability; Host-parasite coevolution; Replicators; Selfish elements; Viruses

PMID:
26965225
PMCID:
PMC5406846
DOI:
10.1016/j.shpsc.2016.02.016
[Indexed for MEDLINE]
Free PMC Article

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