A few days ago I wrote about the startling conclusions about horizontal versus vertical genetics, and the implications that this might have for our understanding of the kinds of evolution, and genetic information flow that might be possible. In that article, the main mechanism was the shuffling of bacterial DNA across boundaries, but there is another excellent article on the subject at New Scientist, this time talking about the viral DNA load in the genome.
"When, in 2001, the human genome was sequenced for the first time, we were confronted by several surprises. One was the sheer lack of genes: where we had anticipated perhaps 100,000 there were actually as few as 20,000. A bigger surprise came from analysis of the genetic sequences, which revealed that these genes made up a mere 1.5 per cent of the genome. This is dwarfed by DNA deriving from viruses, which amounts to roughly 9 per cent.
On top of that, huge chunks of the genome are made up of mysterious virus-like entities called retrotransposons, pieces of selfish DNA that appear to serve no function other than to make copies of themselves. These account for no less than 34 per cent of our genome.
All in all, the virus-like components of the human genome amount to almost half of our DNA. This would once have been dismissed as mere "junk DNA", but we now know that some of it plays a critical role in our biology. As to the origins and function of the rest, we simply do not know.
The human genome therefore presents us with a paradox. How does this viral DNA come to be there? What role has it played in our evolution, and what is it doing to our physiology? To answer these questions we need to deconstruct the origins of the human genome - a story more fantastic than anything we previously imagined, with viruses playing a bigger part than you might care to believe."
Now, that is interesting, and makes the whole evolutionary picture a lot more complex than I was taught twenty years ago. (My degree is in Genetics.) Wonderful stuff, and it really makes you think about the systems complexity in nature.