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Message Subject Hacking the People’s DNA
Poster Handle Coming Into Existence
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[link to www.livescience.com (secure)]

An Ancient Virus May Be Responsible for Human Consciousness

That's because viruses aren't just critters that try to make a home in a body, the way bacteria do. Instead, as Live Science has previously reported, a virus is a genetic parasite. It injects its genetic code into its host's cells and hijacks them, turning them to its own purposes — typically, that means as factories for making more viruses. This process is usually either useless or harmful to the host, but every once in a while, the injected viral genes are benign or even useful enough to hang around. The 2016 review found that viral genes seem to play important roles in the immune system, as well as in the early days of embryo development.

But the new papers take things a step further. Not only is an ancient virus still very much active in the cells of human and animal brains, but it seems to be so important to how they function that processes of thought as we know them likely never would have arisen without it, the researchers said.

The Arc gene

Shortly after a synapse fires, the viral gene known as Arc comes to life, writing its instructions down as bits of mobile genetic code known as RNA, the researchers found. (A synapse is the junction between two neurons.)

RNA is DNA's messenger and agent in the world outside the cell's nucleus. A single-strand copy of code from DNA's double helix, it carries genetic instructions to places they can be useful. (And, interestingly, viruses tend to store their genetic code in RNA, rather than in DNA.)

Following the Arc RNA's instructions, the nerve cell builds "capsids" — virus-like envelopes — around it. Those envelopes let it travel safely between cells, and it does just that, entering neighboring neurons and passing its packet of genetic information along to them, according to the studies.

It's still unclear what that information does when it arrives in a new cell, but the researchers found that without the process functioning properly, synapses wither away. And problems with the Arc gene tend to show up in people with autism and other atypical neural conditions, the researchers said.

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