Evolution in the News - August 2013
by Do-While Jones

The Virus From Mars

Irresponsible news outlets misreport the discovery of the Pandoravirus.

On July 19, several usually unreliable news sources erroneously reported that scientists had discovered a virus that came from Mars. The Daily Mail headline said, “Scientists Discover Unique Giant Virus That Could be From Space.” 1 The International Business Times headline was, “Scientists find GIANT Pandoravirus that could have come from an alien planet.” 2 According to both Eureka! Science News and Fast Company, “Scientists Say Giant 'Pandoraviruses' Could Have Come From Mars.” 3 4 MSN News was the least inaccurate. Their headline was “Scientists discover world’s biggest virus – has ancient DNA.” It was subtitled, “The Pandoravirus does not look like anything else, and could be an alien life form – but it's not going to make us sick.” 5 At least MSN didn’t mention Mars in the headline.

Here’s the truth. Scientists did publish a report 6 about the largest virus ever discovered. There is no evidence that it came from Mars, or anyplace else in space. It was found underwater in two places, neither of which was next to a wrecked spacecraft or meteorite. The space program has not found any viruses existing on Mars now, and no evidence that there ever were any viruses on Mars, so there is no reason to believe that these viruses came from Mars. There is no evidence that it has “ancient DNA,” (whatever that means). It’s just a newly discovered big virus. It isn’t a terrifying new virus from Mars that is going to wipe out civilization as we know it. (But who wants to read an article about a benign virus? That kind of article won’t increase readership and justify higher advertising rates.)

The name the scientists gave it is, in our opinion, overly frightening. Younger readers probably think Pandora is just a place to get music. In Greek mythology, Pandora unwittingly opened a box that released all kinds of evils onto the Earth. So, the name “Pandoravirus” suggests that it is a virus that could spread throughout the world, causing all kinds of evil. That fear is unwarranted because it isn’t a new mutant virus about to take over the world. It is just an old virus that had never been described in the technical literature before. According to the study authors,

We report the isolation of two giant viruses, one off the coast of central Chile, the other from a freshwater pond near Melbourne (Australia), without morphological or genomic resemblance to any previously defined virus families. Their micrometer-sized ovoid particles contain DNA genomes of at least 2.5 and 1.9 megabases, respectively. These viruses are the first members of the proposed “Pandoravirus” genus, a term reflecting their lack of similarity with previously described microorganisms and the surprises expected from their future study. 7

Bear in mind that “giant” is a relative term. These “giant viruses” are so big that they can barely be seen by an ordinary microscope—but they are much bigger than normal viruses which can’t be seen by an optical microscope.

One of the editors of the journal summarizes

… the amazed reactions to the discovery, reported on page 281, of two new viruses with by far the largest genomes ever seen in a virus, including one that's bigger than the genomes of some parasitic eukaryotes. The virologists in France who unearthed the massive viruses … suggest that their finds challenge the longstanding view that viruses don't qualify as life.

"It is clear that the paradigm that viruses have small genomes and are relatively simple in comparison to cellular life has been overturned," says Curtis Suttle, a virologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. 8

In a nutshell, the Pandoravirus has opened Pandora’s Box for evolutionists because it just doesn’t fit into the conventional view of evolution.

Because of their size, the pandoraviruses appeared bacterialike at first. But using light and electron microscopy, the French group followed the newfound entities through a replication cycle, which proved viruslike. Instead of dividing in two like a typical bacterium or cell, they generated hundreds or more new viral particles, Claverie's team reports. Both pandoraviruses lack genes for energy production and can't actually produce a protein on their own, fulfilling the definition of virus. "The authors seem to have gone the proverbial extra mile to show that these agents are actually viruses rather than some sort of unusual bacteria," says Eugene Koonin, a computational evolutionary biologist at the National Center for Biotechnology Information in Bethesda, Maryland.

But unlike other viruses, the pandoraviruses lack the gene for the capsid protein that typically forms a capsule around a virus's genes and are missing some key genes found in all other giant viruses and their relatives, including ones for replication. "They seem to be a new family unto themselves," Ghedin says.

Indeed, most of the pandoravirus genes don't look like any in known databases. "The lack of similarity might be an indication that they originated from a totally different primitive cellular lineage than bacteria, archaea, and eukarya," Claverie says. Add in other giant viruses, he says, and "these viruses might indicate that not only a fourth domain existed but also a fifth, a sixth, etc." Raoult goes so far as to suggest lumping all complex microbes—the various giant viruses plus archaea, bacteria, and microbial eukaryotes—into a new grouping he would call TRUC, an acronym for Things Resisting Uncomplete Classification—and the French word for stuff. It's too soon to redraw the tree of life, several researchers caution. But some revision is already warranted, Suttle argues. 9

The way this discovery was reported is just another example of how the popular press distorts the truth to make it appear there is evidence for the theory of evolution; but the truth is that the discovery provides evidence against the theory.

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Footnotes:

1 http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2370100/Scientists-GIANT-Pandoravirus-come-alien-planet.html
2 http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/articles/492676/20130720/scientists-giant-biggest-pandoravirus-alien-planet-mars.htm
3 http://esciencenews.com/sources/newsvine/2013/07/20/scientists.find.giant.pandoravirus.could.have.come.alien.planet.mail.online
4 http://www.fastcompany.com/3014607/fast-feed/scientists-say-giant-pandoraviruses-could-have-come-from-mars
5 http://news.msn.com/science-technology/scientists-discover-world%e2%80%99s-biggest-virus-%e2%80%93-has-ancient-dna
6 Nadège Philippe, et al., Science, 19 July 2013, “Pandoraviruses: Amoeba Viruses with Genomes Up to 2.5 Mb Reaching That of Parasitic Eukaryotes”, pp. 281-286, http://www.sciencemag.org/content/341/6143/281.abstract?sid=ab429e70-7a64-425f-bf44-54edd0c65f14#aff-1
7 ibid.
8 Elizabeth Pennisi, Science, 19 July 2013, “Ever-Bigger Viruses Shake Tree of Life”, pp. 226-227, http://www.sciencemag.org/content/341/6143/226.full
9 ibid.