Study adds to evidence that viruses are alive
Until now, viruses have been difficult to classify, said University of Illinois crop sciences and Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology professor Gustavo Caetano-Anollés, who led the new analysis with graduate student Arshan Nasir. In its latest report, the International Committee on the Taxonomy of Viruses recognized seven orders of viruses, based on their shapes and sizes, genetic structure and means of reproducing. B21″Under this classification, viral families belonging to the same order have likely diverged from a common ancestral virus,” the authors wrote. “However, only 26 (of 104) viral families have been assigned to an order, and the evolutionary relationships of most of them remain unclear.”
Part of the confusion stems from the abundance and diversity of viruses. Less than 4,900 viruses have been identified and sequenced so far, even though scientists estimate there are more than a million viral species. Many viruses are tiny — significantly smaller than bacteria or other microbes — and contain only a handful of genes. Others, like the recently discovered mimiviruses, are huge, with genomes bigger than those of some bacteria.
The new study focused on the vast repertoire of protein structures, called “folds,” that are encoded in the genomes of all cells and viruses. Folds are the structural building blocks of proteins, giving them their complex, three-dimensional shapes. By comparing fold structures across different branches of the tree of life, researchers can reconstruct the evolutionary histories of the folds and of the organisms whose genomes code for them.More.
An honest answer would need to be, we dunno:
The definition of life has reached the point where science historian George Dyson tells us, “Life is whatever you define it to be.” Richard Dawkins has suggested it is “anything highly statistically improbable, but in a particular direction.” And at a year 2000 international “What is life?” conference, no two definitions were the same. Biochemist Edward Trifonov noted that there are 123 definitions available and, undeterred, promptly proposed his own: Life is self-reproduction with variations. Which was just as promptly contested. In a 2012 issue of philosophy journal Synthèse, Edouard Machery concluded that “scientists, philosophers, and ethicists should discard the project of defining life.”
Still in the game, astrobiologist Charley Lineweaver proposes a new, non-Darwinian approach to defining life: … More.
So who would know if they weren’t?