In the second book of Dean Koontz's unfinished Moonlight Bay trilogy, there is a retro virus that takes DNA from one creature alter itself accordingly and deposits itself into another cell, causing it to pump out more of itself and altering the cell's DNA.

The result is that humans become animalistic, and animals start to gain above average intelligence. Not by a great amount, but by enough to be noticed.

Is this possible? Or is this actually science fiction?

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    Might be a better fit for a different SE (perhaps Biology); it's not asking a SciFi question, but if RL conforms to a SciFi idea. If it helps, yes; a virus inserts it's genetic material into a cell causing the cell to produce more virus, basically hijacking it and turning it into a virus factory. Retroviruses actually push their data into the cellular DNA, and can reproduce with the cell. (Normal viruses hijack the manufacturing process, but not the core DNA.) See: Retrovirus on Wikipedia. – K-H-W Sep 9 '12 at 21:32
  • @KeithHWeston and others, apologies I seem to have missed out a vital part to my question. – AncientSwordRage Sep 9 '12 at 21:41
  • @Keith: perhaps if the question were rephrased to discus if the plot was based on real science (so call "hard science fiction" or which ever term you prefer) or if it paid no more than lip service to real science (therefor being "pulp scifi", again terminology can be contentious here), it would fit better? – David Spillett Sep 9 '12 at 21:42
  • @DavidSpillett I'm not 100% on how to do that, could you edit if you have ideas? – AncientSwordRage Sep 9 '12 at 21:43
  • @DavidSpillett - Works for me; it's mostly a phrasing issue -- Is this [insert idea here] from a story based on RL is a SciFi question to me.. Is this SciFi idea from a story possible in RL, not so much. I didn't try an edit it, 'cause I'm not sure what he's asking, and they are two different questions, really. – K-H-W Sep 9 '12 at 22:24

Yes, the retrovirus as you describe it would still be in the realm of science fiction.

  • Viruses do not normally move cellular/genetic matter from one organism's cellular structure and replace it with another's. This type of horizontal gene transfer is limited to select bacteria on Earth.
  • If it were to happen, it would require someone to artificially manipulate a virus or group of viruses/retroviruses technologically. See Stack Exchange article: What evidence points to Xenomorphs being biologically engineered?

  • For a single retrovirus or even a series of viruses/retroviruses to be able to attack humanity and a variety of animals would be quite the accomplishment, since viruses and retroviruses even more so, have a very selective nature as to what kinds of cells they can and will manipulate. To be fair, a viral weapon utilizing retroviral technologies would likely be the means by which such an attack might be utilized.

  • Retroviruses take over the cellular process of a cell and incorporate their genetic material INTO a cell's biological process and genetic therapies, genetically modified foods and other genetic technologies are created using RNA transcription/retroviruses. (See: Medical Dictionary: Retroviruses, Wikipedia: Retrovirus)

How a Virus Infects You (How Stuff Works)

Viruses lie around our environment all of the time just waiting for a host cell to come along. They can enter us through the nose, mouth or breaks in the skin (see How the Immune System Works for details). Once inside, they find a host cell to infect. For example, cold and flu viruses will attack cells that line the respiratory or digestive tracts. The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which causes AIDS, attacks the T-cells of the immune system.

Regardless of the type of host cell, all viruses follow the same basic steps in what is known as the lytic cycle (see figure):

Lytic Cycle

  • A virus particle attaches to a host cell.
  • The particle releases its genetic instructions into the host cell.
  • The injected genetic material recruits the host cell's enzymes.
  • The enzymes make parts for more new virus particles.
  • The new particles assemble the parts into new viruses.
  • The new particles break free from the host cell.

All viruses have some type of protein on the outside coat or envelope that "feels" or "recognizes" the proper host cell(s). This protein attaches the virus to the membrane of the host cell. Some enveloped viruses can dissolve right through the cell membrane of the host because both the virus envelope and the cell membrane are made of lipids.

Those viruses that do not enter the cell must inject their contents (genetic instructions, enzymes) into the host cell. Those viruses that dissolve into a cell simply release their contents once inside the host. In either case, the results are the same.

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It doesn't seem completely implausible, especially if the virus were artificially created so did not need to evolve that behavior via random mutation or gene acquisition.

Viruses by their nature make use of the host cell as part of their life cycle and often interact with its RNA and DNA, not always destructively.

There is much evidence that "sideways" transmission of genes between species via viruses was quite significant in early life on Earth and is still happening. Also other organisms can make use of genetic information from others in some circumstances,with bacteria sometimes doing this to effectively "share" resistance techniques.

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horizontal_gene_transfer for a good starting point on the science that the plot idea was probably based upon. It almost certainly doesn't happen naturally IMO (though nature has done some other seemingly unlikely things, so you never know!) but the parts of the required mechanism exist in nature meaning it is not inconceivable that an expert enough intelligence could manufacture a virus that operated in such a manner.

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    This scenario is plausible in the same way that cutting and pasting a chunk of compiled code from Duke Nukem Forever into the World of Warcraft executable to create a version of World of Warcraft with more FPS aspects is plausible. – S. Albano Sep 10 '12 at 3:42
  • @S.Albano: Yes, but warp drives and many other SciFi devices are similarly plausible. In an infinite universe nothing is impossible, just very very improbable. – David Spillett Oct 16 '12 at 14:43
  • The OP was asking if it was "possible" or "science fiction". Your answerstates that it is "not completely implausible". My point is that it is completely implausible, like warp drives and many other science fiction devices, placing it clearly on the scifi end of the spectrum. – S. Albano Oct 16 '12 at 15:38

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