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Finding Genius Podcast

Apr 20, 2020

Professor James Shapiro shares his thoughts with listeners on all things viral. In this exploration of molecular biology, he touches on 

  • Some of the intricacies and differences in how retroviruses versus other types of viruses behave and affect their hosts;
  • How viruses are sources of new information for cells that may be useful to evolving organisms at critical junctures; and 
  • Why he's studying the evolution of cancers in comparison to organismal evolution.

James A. Shapiro has been with the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Chicago since 1973. He has written several books, including Evolution: a View from the 21st century.  He begins by explaining some of the genome editing virus interactions bring about, including in the virus and bacteria-as-host relationship. He describes the protection phages (viruses that inhabit bacteria) offer bacteria from protozoans, for example.

He adds examples of mammal and retrovirus interactions and genome editing, citing placental development as a result. These, he comments, are examples of how viruses introduce new elements into evolving organisms, leading to his virus-as-R & D analogy.

Dr. Shapiro also describes this as a one-way transfer system and notes that viruses are part of what we call the biosphere. They are vehicles for cells communicating with each other. On their own, they can't do much, yet they can enact change on their hosts. He expands on some of this molecular biology phenomena and explains that viruses are sources of new information that may be useful to evolving organisms at critical junctions in evolution.

He also offers an exploration of cancer behavior and evolution. Cancer is so destructive, he says, because cellular behaviors are enacted that wouldn't normally be, yet cancer uses normal evolutionary processes to change.  He's working on understanding cancer by comparing its evolution with organismal evolution and noting the parallels.

Finally, he discusses his theory of cellular cognition, and that in the near future, we will think about cells in a more systemic, cognitive way—ultimately learning about living organisms is really learning about how systems behave.

For more, see his lab website at, which links to his research, books, and past blogs and articles.