Michio Kaku And Frank Ryan: How Ancient Viruses Molded And Changed The Human Genome [Opinion]

Michio Kaku and Frank Ryan recently discussed the human genome and how viruses have become part of mammal DNA. Viruses have altered the DNA of humans and other mammals, including rodents. About 8 percent of all human genetic material is the result of remnants of ancient viruses human ancestors were exposed to.

Michio Kaku’s guest Frank Ryan is the author of The Mysterious World of the Human Genome, and Michio Kaku is a co-author of String Theory. Michio Kaku and Frank Ryan had a fascinating discussion about the human genome and how ancient viruses made changes to the human race in the video below.

Aris Katzourakis, another brilliant geneticist, recently had an interview with the New York Times on how viruses changed the human genome. Human DNA contains about 100,000 pieces of viral DNA. Are these parts of viruses helpful or harmful, asked the New York Times?

“It’s not an either-or — are these things good or bad? It’s a lot more complicated than that. We’re barely at the beginning of this research.”

Viral DNA in the human genome may be related to both increased immunity and cancer, according to the New York Times. In other words, sometimes viral DNA is helpful and other times harmful. The science of exactly which viruses impacted the human genome, and how that may affect human health, is in its infancy.

Michio Kaku explained at least some of what was once thought to be junk DNA is actually tiny bits of viruses. Remnants of viruses that attacked an individual are recorded in the survivor’s DNA and the DNA of their offspring.

“[what was once thought to be Junk DNA] is the remnants of ancient viral infection and interactions and co-evolution with them.”


Michio Kaku and Frank Ryan say ancient humans who survived various plagues and illnesses passed on the remnants of those viruses to their offspring, and somehow this DNA has remained in the human genome for many thousands of years.

Michio Kaku’s guest, Frank Ryan, explains that the history of the diseases of our ancestors is written in our DNA. This gives clues used to piece together the genetic ancestry of an individual as part of the human genome project.

“The history of human migration is actually written into the genome. It is written in a very curious way.”

Frank Ryan explains to Michio Kaku how this began. As people moved into Asia and Europe from Africa, a mutation occurred in the genome. Those kinds of mutations can be traced to discover ancestral nationality.

Most of the viruses that make their way into the human genome are retroviruses, according to Michio Kaku and Frank Ryan as well as experts interviewed by the New York Times recently. A modern example of a retrovirus is AIDS.

Michio Kaku’s guest explained how viral symbiosis results in co-evolution that impacts not only the human genome but also the genome of all mammals. Viral symbiosis means that the virus changes the mammal and the mammal changes the virus. Frank Ryan gives an example.

“Hantavirus co-evolved with rodents. The virus and the rodent are both changing each other’s evolution.”

Michio Kaku’s guest explained how through viral symbiosis, the hantavirus has made the mouse the creature it is today, and without the hantavirus, a mouse would not be the same type of mouse. The entire mouse genome would not be the same.

The hantavirus has changed the mouse genome
The hantavirus has changed the mouse genome by Bernd Wolter

It’s the same for human beings. Humans are, at least in part, a product of the difficulties they and their ancestors have endured, especially the diseases one’s ancestors have survived.


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Michio Kaku explains genetic researchers are learning how the human genome has been changed by viral symbiosis.

[Featured Image by Evan Agostini/AP Images and Mkarco/Shutterstock]