Parasites are not only incredibly diverse; they are also incredibly successful. There are parasitic stretches of DNA in your own genes, some of which are called retrotransposons. Many of the parasitic stretches were originally viruses that entered our DNA. Most of them don't do us any harm. They just copy and insert themselves in other parts of our DNA, basically replicating themselves. Sometimes they hop into other species and replicate themselves in a new host. According to one estimate, roughly one-third to one-half of all human DNA is basically parasitic.
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At long last, we may be returning to the original two-sided sense of the word virus, which originally signified either a life-giving substance or a deadly venom. Viruses are indeed exquisitely deadly, but they have provided the world with some of its most important innovations. Creation and destruction join together once more.
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From Lankaster to Lorenz, scientists have gotten it wrong. Parasites are complex, highly adapted creatures that are at the heart of the story of life. If there hadn't been such high walls dividing scientists who study life - the zoologists, the immunologists, the mathematical biologists, the ecologists - parasites might have been recognized sooner as not disgusting, or at least not merely disgusting. If parasites were so feeble, so lazy, how was it that they could manage to live inside every free-living species and infect billions of people? How could they change with time so that medicines that could once treat them became useless? How could parasites defy vaccines, which could corral brutal killers like smallpox and polio?
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Today, when we look at a brain, we see an intricate network of billions of neurons in constant, crackling communication, a chemical labyrinth that senses the world outside and within, produces love and sorrow, keeps our hearts beating and lungs breathing, composes our thoughts, and constructs our consciousness.
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Researchers keep identifying new species, but they have no idea about the life cycle of a given species or its other hosts. They cut open an animal and find a new species. Where did it come from? What effect does it have on its host? What is its next host? They don't know and they don't have time to find out, because there are too many other species waiting to be discovered and described.
In 1494, King Charles VIII of France invaded Italy. Within months, his army collapsed and fled. It was routed not by the Italian army but by a microbe. A mysterious new disease spread through sex killed many of Charles's soldiers and left survivors weak and disfigured. French soldiers spread the disease across much of Europe, and then it moved into Africa and Asia. Many called it the French disease. The French called it the Italian disease. Arabs called it the Christian disease. Today, it is called syphilis.
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