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Academic & Professional Books  Evolutionary Biology  Evolution

Viruses Agents of Evolutionary Invention

By: Michael G Cordingley(Author)
373 pages, no illustrations
A fascinating but technical account of how viruses drive evolution everywhere.
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Average customer review
  • Viruses ISBN: 9780674972087 Hardback Jun 2017 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
Price: £47.95
About this book Contents Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

Viruses are the most abundant biological entities on Earth, and arguably the most successful. They are not technically alive, but – as infectious vehicles of genetic information – they have a remarkable capacity to invade, replicate, and evolve within living cells. Synthesizing a large body of recent research, Michael Cordingley goes beyond our familiarity with viral infections to show how viruses spur evolutionary change in their hosts, shape global ecosystems, and influence every domain of life.

In the last few decades, research has revealed that viruses are fundamental to the photosynthetic capacity of the world's oceans and the composition of the human microbiome. Perhaps most fascinating, viruses are now recognized as remarkable engines of the genetic innovation that fuels natural selection and catalyzes evolution in all domains of life. Viruses have coevolved with their hosts since the beginning of life on our planet and are part of the evolutionary legacy of every species that has ever lived.

Cordingley explains how viruses are responsible for the creation of many feared bacterial diseases and the emergence of newly pathogenic and drug-resistant strains. And as more and more viruses jump to humans from other animals, new epidemics of viral disease will threaten global society. But Cordingley shows that we can adapt, relying on our evolved cognitive and cultural capacities to limit the consequences of viral infections. Piecing together the story of viruses' major role within and beyond human disease, Viruses: Agents of Evolutionary Invention creates a valuable roadmap through the rapidly expanding terrain of virology.


    1. Obligate Parasites of Cells
        The Virosphere and Its Metagenome
        Complexity and “Dark Matter”
        Selfish Information and the Essence of Being Viral
        The Emergence of Egotistical Replicators
        The Viral Empire
    2. Viruses, Genes, and Ecosystems
        Lifestyles and Life Cycles
        Lysogeny: Exercising Temperance
        Kill the Winner
        Gene Brokers
        Selfishness Driving Adaptive Evolution
        Phages and the Microbiome
        Unfriendly Competition
        Chemical Warfare
    3. Potentiation of Bacterial Diseases by Phages
        For a Charm of Powerful Trouble
        Toxic Enablers
        Choose Your Poison
        Treasure Islands
        Prophage Induction and Antibiotic Drug Resistance
    4. Viruses and Higher Organisms
        Viruses, Cells, Organisms, and Populations
        “Just a Virus”
        Human Rhinoviruses
        Uncommon Diversity
        Accidents of Pathogenesis
        Mutation, Diversity, and Quasipecies
    5. The Flu: No Common Cold
        Antigenic Escape Artists
        Human Influenza A Virus
        Epidemic Influenza: Dress for the Season
        Quasispecies, Sequence Clusters, and Codon Bias
        Correlating Genetic and Antigenic Evolution
        Seeding of Seasonal Epidemics
        Pandemic Influenza: The Emperor with No Clothes
    6. Alternative Virus Lifestyles
        Latency: Till Death Do Us Part
        All in the Family Herpesviridae
    7. Evolutionary Mechanisms of DNA Viruses
        Gene Duplication and Gene Capture
        Poxvirus Evolution
        Poxvirus Party Tricks
        Small DNA Virus Evolution
    8. Viroids and Megaviruses: Extremes
        Viroids: The Smallest
        Evolutionary Reliquary
        Megaviruses: The Biggest
        Big and Bigger
        Virophages: Fleas upon Fleas
        Megavirus Origins: Mavericks at Heart
    9. HIV-1: A Very Modern Pandemic
        A New Disease and a New Virus
        Anatomy of HIV-1
        HIV in the Making
        Socioepidemiology of AIDS: A Man-Made Epidemic
        Within-Host Evolution: A Very Personal Arms Race
        Shortsighted Evolution
        Adaptive Evolution: An Evolving Relationship
        Outrunning the Red Queen
        Medicine at the Virus–Host Interface
        Resistance Is Futile
    10. Cross-Species Infections: Means and Opportunity
        A Rogue’s Gallery of Emerging Viruses
        Adaptive Evolution in Zoonosis
        Fitness Landscape
        A Shifting Fitness Landscape
        The Paradox in RNA Virus Evolution
        RNA Viruses and Molecular Clocks
        Arboviruses: Vector-Borne Viruses
        Evolutionary Compromise
        Host Restriction
    11. Future Pandemic Influenza
        Real and Present Danger
        Pandemic Threat Level
        The Pandemic Phenotype
    12. Ebolavirus
        EBOV Makona
        What We Were Afraid to Say about Ebola
        Evolution or Adaptive Change
        EBOV Persistence
    13. Viral Zoonoses and Animal Reservoirs
        The Usual Suspects
        Filovirus Origins
        Bats and Viral Zoonoses
        A Special Relationship
        Tolerance and Resistance
    14. Endogenous Retroviruses: Our Viral Heritage
        Genome Invasion by Retroviruses
        Endogenization in Progress
        Change Agents
        Domestication of ERV Genes
        Endogenous Viral Elements
    15. Viruses as Human Tools
        Myxoma Virus: Biological Control
        Genomics of an Attenuated Poxvirus
        Orthopoxviruses: Past Solutions and Future Problems
        Live-Attenuated Viruses
        Attenuation by Design
        Virus Therapeutics
        Doctor’s Little Helpers
        Oncolytic Viruses
    16. Conclusion: Humanity and Viruses
        The Human Future and Viruses
        Beauty in Design

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Fascinating, but very technical
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 14 Nov 2019 Written for Hardback

    When I reviewed Planet of Microbes, I remarked that microbes are everywhere. If you are willing to stretch the definition of life a bit further still, there is one entity that is even more numerous and omnipresent: the humble virus. We tend to think of viruses almost exclusively in the context of disease (see for example The Invisible Enemy). But, as virologist and pharmaceutical researcher Michael Cordingley shows here, they are so much more than mere pathogens and have a huge influence on evolutionary processes in all organisms. This book paints a remarkable portrait of these unusual life forms.

    And let there be no mistake, viruses are unusual. They straddle the border between living and non-living matter. By themselves, they are inert collections of nucleic acids (either RNA or DNA), often, but not always, wrapped in a protein capsule. They don’t eat, they don’t breathe, they don’t move. For all intents and purposes, they are just another collection of macromolecules that make up the world. But give them a living host and they appear alive: invading, multiplying, and evolving. In the first few chapters, Cordingley highlights many peculiarities and traits that make viruses so important and unique in evolution, and I will highlight three of them here.

    For one, they are numerous. Because viruses can infect all lifeforms, including microbes (themselves already very numerous) the virosphere contains an astronomical number of individuals at any given time. A conservative estimate of 1031 viruses is mentioned. This is a lot of genetic information for natural selection to work with. The viruses that infect microbes, bacteriophages, make up a large part of this and reproduce quickly due to the short generation time of bacteria.

    Second, viruses literally inject their genetic material into cells, and some of it can and will be accidentally incorporated into the host’s genetic blueprint (its genome). This means genetic information is not only moving between generations – from parents to offspring during conventional reproduction – but also within generations in a sideways fashion, which is known as horizontal gene transfer. Quammen will further explore the importance of this in his forthcoming book The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life, but consider for a moment that this mechanism is implicated in the speed with which bacteria can develop resistance to antibiotics, previously discussed in Superbugs. The incorporation of viral DNA in the host’s genome is directly causing mutations and generating variation on which natural selection can act.

    The final example I want to highlight are RNA viruses, such as the poliovirus. Replication of RNA, the single-stranded relative of double-stranded DNA, is notoriously messy. Error rates are as high as one per 1000 to 10,000 bases, compared to one per ten million bases for DNA viruses (a base is the unit of genetic information, consisting of an organic molecule known as a nucleotide – in DNA these occur in pairs, hence base pairs, which form the familiar double helix when strung together). This means that the individuals in a population of RNA viruses are so genetically diverse you can’t really call them conventional species anymore. Cordingley introduces the concept of quasispecies: diffuse groups of closely related but genetically distinct individuals. This hypervariability makes viruses particularly adept at adapting. When environments change, the genetic variation present in a population of “conventional” organisms is probably not enough to immediately supply an individual that is optimally adapted, so further evolution will happen. As environments are constantly changing, in reality this means that most “conventional” species are constantly lagging behind, chasing the evolutionary optimum. The hyperdiverse members of an RNA virus population, meanwhile, are far more likely to already have well-adapted members present when environments change, which will immediately be favoured in reproduction. I had not heard of this concept before, but it blew my mind when considering it.

    A large part of the book deals with human viruses and the diseases they cause: influenza, HIV-1 and AIDS, ebolavirus, cross-species infections and animal reservoirs of viral zoonoses (i.e. diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans), and the unique world of retroviruses. Most of these topics have been the subject of dedicated books (e.g. Virus Hunt, Ebola: Profile of a Killer Virus, and Spillover), though not yet retroviruses. This group *must* nestle themselves into the host’s DNA before they can replicate, which means they are by definition heritable. In contrast, most other viruses will use their host for their own replication, but if the host survives and reproduces, the viral DNA is not passed on to the host’s offspring. Skalka will be writing more about these unique viruses in her forthcoming book Discovering Retroviruses.

    In all these chapters, the focus is on the mechanics of these viruses and the particular evolutionary viral tricks they use. While introductions are light and terminology and concepts are explained, the reading quickly gets technical, sometimes to the point that I felt I was reading a journal paper rather than a popular science book. Although I found Viruses an incredibly fascinating book, I can’t say it is easily accessible. A basic understanding of microbiology is a must to really get the most out of this book. The lack of a glossary doesn’t help, but probably the biggest drawback is the complete absence of illustrations. The many complicated and often theoretical concepts could have been made much more accessible by illustrations. A Crack in Creation is a shining example of illustrating concepts in bacterial and viral genetics. Given the diversity of topics covered here, the number of required illustrations would perhaps have been prohibitive.

    Speaking of A Crack in Creation, given what we now know about the incorporation of viral DNA in the host’s genome post-infection to be used in future immune responses, I was surprised to find no mention of CRISPR in this book whatsoever. Not even in the chapter on using viruses as human tools that covers such topics as the use of viruses in vaccines, as biological control agents, or as agents to combat cancer. It seems like an odd omission in an otherwise very thorough and wide-ranging book.

    Though not a popular science book such as, say, A Planet of Viruses, Cordingley nevertheless provides an up-to-date and detailed account of the evolutionary power and prowess of viruses that should appeal to biologists with an interest in evolution or microbiology.
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Michael G. Cordingley is President and Founder of Revolution Pharma Consulting and Senior Scientific Advisor at Antiva Biosciences.

By: Michael G Cordingley(Author)
373 pages, no illustrations
A fascinating but technical account of how viruses drive evolution everywhere.
Media reviews

"Michael Cordingley has written an engaging and enlightening description of viruses from a refreshingly different viewpoint, as agents that drive not only their own evolution, but that of their hosts."
– Vincent Racaniello, Columbia University

"Michael Cordingley describes the complex life of viruses from the perspective of evolutionary agents. With carefully selected and easily understandable examples, he makes the argument that viruses follow the laws of Darwinian evolution. This book is highly recommended for microbiologists and individuals who care about global health care."
– Peter Sarnow, Stanford University School of Medicine

"This is a much needed book on a subject that has long been overlooked. The author has done an excellent job of communicating how viruses are core agents in the evolution of life. Anyone interested in the evolution of life should read this book."
– Luis Villarreal, University of California, Irvine

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