Mexico City Swine Flu: Evolution Happens

Just ask Mexico’s national Health Secretary, Jose Cordova.

The Los Angeles Times today:

“We have confirmation that this is a mutant of a virus that comes from pigs that . . . never had provoked an epidemic, that is, had never spread among humans,” Cordova said.


The new swine virus is unlike any researchers have seen before. It appears to be a combination of segments from four viruses from three continents, with a human segment, an avian segment and pig segments.

Human, avian, and pig segments—and from three continents?

Curiously, there was, just recently, an article in New Scientist on “swapping” types of evolution, in which genetic segments from different species move around the web of life. It’s called HGT (horizontal gene transfer) and complicates the traditional view of evolution as a rather linear “tree of life” that Darwin famously envisioned, in which the branches don’t touch one another. I’m not a scientist, but the way that New Scientist describes HGT struck me as similar to the way that this new virus is described by the Los Angeles Times.

You can read about HGT here.

And here’s a quote from New Scientist on HGT:

Darwin assumed that descent was exclusively “vertical”, with organisms passing traits down to their offspring. But what if species also routinely swapped genetic material with other species, or hybridised with them? Then that neat branching pattern would quickly degenerate into an impenetrable thicket of interrelatedness, with species being closely related in some respects but not others.

We now know that this is exactly what happens. As more and more genes were sequenced, it became clear that the patterns of relatedness could only be explained if bacteria and archaea were routinely swapping genetic material with other species – often across huge taxonomic distances – in a process called horizontal gene transfer (HGT).

Three continents and three species. Oh, and did we mention that this Mexico City mutant virus could also become a global pandemic?

Welcome to this life! Welcome to the superconnected worldwide web! And welcome to the organic and human family, one and all!

John Donne’s “Meditation 17” in 1624: 

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

We are “involved in mankind” and in life. Like it or not. Ready or not. Here it comes.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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