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Evolutionary technology


The evolution of viruses
Manfred Eigen Scientist
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We have already talked about viruses, which are essentially genetic programmes which invade a host cell and then switch the host cell to reproduce a virus rather than itself – and in many cases this is the death of the host cell after some time. So from our knowledge of error rates and mutation rates and so on, we can draw two types of conclusion... well, in fact, we can draw three types of conclusion. We can study the evolution of viruses. We can see how did viruses come about. This question for instance in recent time was a very popular – how did the AIDS virus come about? Because it didn't appear in the Western World until 19... what was it?

[Q] '85.

...  or '85. So the question is where did it come from? Did it evolve that quickly, or is it an old virus, or what is its origin? So we can use our insights to tackle such questions. The next question is how can we detect viruses, very precisely, very sensitively? Because if we wait until we are swamped with viruses it's usually too late to do anything, and the earlier we can recognise an infection by a virus the better, the more we can do against it... so diagnostics. And the third problem is can we develop anti-viral strategies... can we try to use our insight in the variability of viruses to develop potent methods against the virus?

[Q] So you mean you use weapons of the virus to kill the virus by its own weapons... or strategies?

For instance, that's one possibility, and, yes, usually pharma try to do such things... to interfere with something which is otherwise a natural thing.

Nobel Prize winning German biophysical chemist, Manfred Eigen (1927-2019), was best known for his work on fast chemical reactions and his development of ways to accurately measure these reactions down to the nearest billionth of a second. He published over 100 papers with topics ranging from hydrogen bridges of nucleic acids to the storage of information in the central nervous system.

Listeners: Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitch

Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitsch is the eldest daughter of the Austrian physicist Klaus Osatitsch, an internationally renowned expert in gas dynamics, and his wife Hedwig Oswatitsch-Klabinus. She was born in the German university town of Göttingen where her father worked at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Aerodynamics under Ludwig Prandtl. After World War II she was educated in Stockholm, Sweden, where her father was then a research scientist and lecturer at the Royal Institute of Technology.

In 1961 Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitsch enrolled in Chemistry at the Technical University of Vienna where she received her PhD in 1969 with a dissertation on "Fast complex reactions of alkali ions with biological membrane carriers". The experimental work for her thesis was carried out at the Max Planck Institute for Physical Chemistry in Göttingen under Manfred Eigen.

From 1971 to the present Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitsch has been working as a research scientist at the Max Planck Institute in Göttingen in the Department of Chemical Kinetics which is headed by Manfred Eigen. Her interest was first focused on an application of relaxation techniques to the study of fast biological reactions. Thereafter, she engaged in theoretical studies on molecular evolution and developed game models for representing the underlying chemical proceses. Together with Manfred Eigen she wrote the widely noted book, "Laws of the Game" (Alfred A. Knopf Inc. 1981 and Princeton University Press, 1993). Her more recent studies were concerned with comparative sequence analysis of nucleic acids in order to find out the age of the genetic code and the time course of the early evolution of life. For the last decade she has been successfully establishing industrial applications in the field of evolutionary biotechnology.

Tags: AIDS, viruses, anti-viral strategies

Duration: 2 minutes, 12 seconds

Date story recorded: July 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008