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Assuming a genetic engineer possessed sufficient knowledge and facilities, could they design a highly infectious Retro-Virus or Adenovirus, which would drastically increase the rate of random mutations in infected life forms?

To clarify, I am asking if this could cause rapid mutation over generations, not necessarily in individuals.

Side question, if they could, would this accelerate the organisms evolution, out just push it to extinction?

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  • $\begingroup$ so basically an evolution causing virus? $\endgroup$ – TrEs-2b Apr 2 '16 at 2:20
  • $\begingroup$ Well, most people only see it as evolution if the mutations are beneficial. But in essence, yes. $\endgroup$ – Myrdden Wyllt Apr 2 '16 at 2:28
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@ TrEs-2b that is wrong. Random but increased Mutations Happening to a Fetus cause malformations and very exotic tumours, so the individual might not even survive and yet not have particularly Special germ line cells.

If the Virus by some mechanism was present/active mostly in the ovaries and/or testes, sure why would that not work?
Infected People would likely have a lot more stillbirths than is normal, and then some Kids who are extraordinarily different in ways that may or may not be an evolutionary Advantage. However if an individual born to infected-in-adulthood-parents, who has some traits that sort of make them the first step in a new evolutinary path, can never stabilize/multiply that line if their own attempts at reproduction were to also involve increased mutations, because they would lose many offspring to letal mutations and then have some where grandparental Status was reestablished, and also some Kids who share most of their new traits plus each have a bunch of newer ones of their own. Seeing how genes interact in complicated ways and how many mutations are recessive and only have effects in the homozygous state, that would be way too much variation, and likely lead to many promising lines ending after one generation…

To accelerate Evolution, I recommend a Virus that does not pass from mother to child and is generally not particularly contagious, so only a few individuals in each generation will be affected and have a lot of mutant children, and the ones among those whose mutations make them advantaged reproduce more than average, and then someone with some new-ish traits, whose great-grandmother was a virus carrier, gets infected again and produces offspring with many new mutations, and that is still accelerated evolution… Invent a vector for this virus that would make it plausible to only surface once in 100 years or so.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is good as an answer, but can you avoid mixing in a comment? $\endgroup$ – Hohmannfan Apr 2 '16 at 15:25
  • $\begingroup$ Thank-you for taking the time out of your day to answer my question, and for the suggestions on how one may be able to make this virus to more effectively force evolution. $\endgroup$ – Myrdden Wyllt Apr 2 '16 at 19:16
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Yes. Consider: there are known mutagenic chemicals. There are toxin-producing tumors. Viruses could cause cells — whichever cells got infected, such as lung tissue — to produce mutation-causing toxins that can then affect the gonads.

As for whether it would accelerate evolution in a useful way, it depends. If too many offspring are not viable, the species may get out-competed. If there are available empty niches (like after a mass extinction) than it may have a leg up on participating in the adaptive radiation.

If the current niche changes quickly, being able to change more rapidly would be an advantage. If the niche is stable and the species already well-adapted, then any change would be for the worse.

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  • $\begingroup$ This will be most useful for promoting evolution in the case of a species that naturally produces a lot of offspring, such as many fish or insects - the maladapted mutants get eaten while the few with beneficial mutations survive. Mammals, not so much. $\endgroup$ – IndigoFenix Apr 3 '16 at 10:04
  • $\begingroup$ Worth mentioning - if you want a virus to specifically mutate the gem cells, it should probably infect the gonads in the first place... mutagenic chemicals produced in the lungs would have a hard time making it to the germ cells without causing a whole host of other problems first. $\endgroup$ – IndigoFenix Apr 3 '16 at 10:15
  • $\begingroup$ I was thinking that idea would bridge the gap, as the kinds of tissues commonly susceptible to infection is different from what's being targeted. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Apr 3 '16 at 15:02
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Yes, I believe so. In adults, the main result of this infection would be an increase in cancer and perhaps some other illnesses. In their offspring, however, whether the infection was acquired in utero or before, it could be manifested in a wide variety of mutations (as well as more cancer throughout their lives).

Keep in mind, though, that the death rate would increase dramatically, as most of the mutations would not be beneficial or harmless. Even the smallest mutations can have devastating effects on life forms (which is why genomes are so stable). The result would be a net loss over every generation.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank-you for the information on the most likely effects of this virus, and taking the time to answer my question. $\endgroup$ – Myrdden Wyllt Apr 2 '16 at 19:14

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