Tuesday, 21 January 2014

The Plague and the benefits of Horizontal Gene Transfer

How do you express the concept of Horizontal Gene Transfer in a way most people could understand and also see where it could be useful?

In fact I have several related concepts and questions I think I can express in one idea:

These are the challengea I've been considering for a few years. One idea I like is creating an experiment to demonstrate the concept in a historical context. Once I understood Horizontal Gene Transfer I quickly started to wonder if this would be a simple answer to why certain people are immune to pandemics like the plague while others aren't.

The point is that anything that would help you survive the plague would be selected for in an evolutionary fashion. Even in the most deadly plagues and pandemics there always people who are immune and survive. It makes a lot of sense that if this immunity were the result of a viral infection then it could spread.

As long as the virus doesn't harm the individual enough that they don't survive then the virus would actually help people live when those around them would die. This would become a symbiotic relationship as long as the plague lasts. It would also encourage the transmission of the virus. Those who are immune would obviously become more common relative to those who are not immune. Stories of miraculous recoveries by being touched or in the presence of certain immune individuals would be abound.

Viruses survive because they can change the genetic code of the hosts they infect

This may sound fantastical but the concept is already in place and called active immunity. The individual themselves would produce the immunity. A related example is Sickle cell anaemia. It is dangerous and uncommon in normal populations but more common in places where malaria is prevent.

Sickle Cell Anaemia protects against malaria. So while normally it would be a bad condition to have but in an environment where Malaria is common is would be quite a benefit. So it demonstrates the principle of an affliction being an advantage however Sickle Cell is an inherited genetic disease.

All we are really talking about here is for nature to come up with a way of being able to transfer this condition to others. That's actually what viruses do. In fact it's how they live. Viruses survive because they can change the genetic code of the hosts they infect. Otherwise they wouldn't be viruses.

So that's the basic theory. A virus uses horizontal gene transfer and could infact do good instead of harm. Giving a species selective advantage. How to demonstrate this though, that's a fun challenge.

We have always known more about evolution and biology than we think. We just haven't appreciated enough different viewpoints. 

So the context is the plague. I'm obviously thinking of the great plague that affected Europe in the middle ages and came to England because I'm English. You pick your own similar story that interests you. The concept is most important.

Working in software is for me an advantage. I practice horizontal gene transfer on a daily basis so the concept and its application becomes quite straightforward once I'm in the right mindset.

The story I want to follow is of a cell or cells being attacked by plague bacteria. You must introduce a virus containing code to protect against the bacteria. Essentially an update to the cell code base. Now the exploit on the code has been fixed.

This explains in one example how a virus could protect us against infection and thus be beneficial. Not just harmful. And how our genetic code can be constantly updated through exposure to the world around us. Just like our devices and apps are constantly being updated.

I described how to translate this into software so this article is about putting context and story behind the techniques. Why you would bother to create this app and why Unity interests me so much as a development platform. You could do this through html 5 but I think it would be easier and have more impact through Unity.

Overall This demonstrates neatly my view that we have always known more about evolution and biology than we think. We just haven't appreciated enough different viewpoints.
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