Viva la evolution! Antibodies show Darwin's theory at work

Influenza virus: Negative-stained transmission electron micrograph (TEM) depicting the ultrastructural details of a number of influenza virus particles, or “virions”.
Influenza virus: Negative-stained transmission electron micrograph (TEM) depicting the ultrastructural details of a number of influenza virus particles, or “virions”.Courtesy pingnews.com
Every time flu season comes around there seems to be concern whether the current flu shot vaccine will be able to stave off the viral attack. That’s because viruses and bacteria have a habit of mutating, which subsequently makes a particular vaccine against them ineffective. So each year the medical profession comes up with a vaccine they think will be an effective counterattack against the invading virus. Our own natural antibodies do something similar.

"We've known for a long time that our antibody-forming system adapts itself to every microbe we encounter," said Gerald Weissmann, M.D. He’s Editor-in-Chief of the FASEB Journal where a new study on the subject appears. “What we didn't understand fully is exactly how this happens,” he added.

When viruses or other microbes attack us, our body’s defense system goes into action - via evolution - figuring out ways to create antibodies that will successfully neutralize the invader. There’s two ways our bodies do this: either by mutation of a single cell or mutation of a cluster of cells.

New research out of Detroit’s Wayne State University shows how clusters of our cells quickly customize themselves to fight new forms of attacks. It has to do with how our genes code for antibodies. When a RNA polymerase replicates DNA it moves across it like a scanner. If the scan is smooth, a single mutation (or none at all) takes place. But if the RNA is stalled over the DNA then in some cases multiple mutations occur. The process allows for rapid deployment of tailor-made antibodies to attack the invader.

Why is this important? Well, according Weissmann, as our climate warms the ranges of parasites and microbes expand, making more people vulnerable to infectious diseases than they have been in the past.

“Now that we know [how cluster mutations occur], we can begin to find ways to manipulate this process so illnesses can be prevented or made significantly less dangerous."

Science Daily report
DNA from the Beginning (good primer)
Explanation of the polymerase chain reaction

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Tiger134's picture
Tiger134 says:

So, if a person gets the flu shot, does it mitigate the body's ability to fight off infection naturally?

posted on Tue, 01/13/2009 - 3:53pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

While this is a good article, it has nothing to do with evolution, as the title suggests. Evolution requires change from one generation to the next. Antibodies are developed in an organism's body and die with the organism, incapable of being passed down to the next generation through DNA. When your body heals from a cut, switches into starvation mode, begins to produce new hormones during puberty, or designs a completely new antibody to a virus that's never been seen before, it is not evolving; it is functioning as every other human functions. Basically, antibodies are one of the only traits that do NOT evolve.

The viruses and bacteria, however, do evolve, as they show non-cyclical change over time. Mutations and other changes in DNA that make the organism more fit will still be present in future generations.

posted on Wed, 01/19/2011 - 4:39pm

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <h3> <h4> <em> <i> <strong> <b> <span> <ul> <ol> <li> <blockquote> <object> <embed> <param> <sub> <sup>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • You may embed videos from the following providers vimeo, youtube. Just add the video URL to your textarea in the place where you would like the video to appear, i.e. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pw0jmvdh.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Images can be added to this post.

More information about formatting options