SCIENTISTS long believed that a strictly one-way process governs the way DNA, the inherited genetic code at the heart of our body cells, gives rise to RNA, which uses the information stored in DNA to synthesise proteins and perform other vital functions.
This so-called central dogma of biology was clung to for decades after evidence emerged that the instructions often work the other way round, with RNA being carried into our DNA, sometimes involving a mechanism called ‘jumping genes’.
To relinquish the dogma meant losing a central plank of evolution theory, which insisted that the characteristics of a species can change only over many generations, through chance mutations followed by natural selection. Integration of RNA into DNA implies that adaptation can happen on a vastly quicker and greater scale.
The dogma still lives on, and last December, when a team of prominent scientists reported preliminary evidence that genetic sequences from the pandemic coronavirus are able to enter the human genome, it created a Twitter storm.
The finding was especially controversial because it provided ammunition for the estimated one billion people across the world concerned about the new, experimental vaccines against Covid-19 that are based on a segment of RNA from the virus, itself almost certainly a product of genetic engineering.
If RNA from the virus itself could alter the human genome, might not the RNA vaccine do the same?
Critics accused the authors of stoking unfounded fears about the vaccine, arguing that the results must be laboratory artefacts.
Comments on Twitter included: ‘With all respect for the authors, I think this is an extremely poor paper. The good thing is, I also think it’s actually very easy to disprove.’
‘Most experts agree that this paper is very unconvincing with huge methodological flaws. It’s extremely unlikely it can integrate in our genome.’
‘Hopefully this paper is nonsense, otherwise it means Covid19 could add random DNA sequences into cells…with 30 trillion cells per person, this would become significant unless it is proven ‘this can’t happen ever’.’
‘If there ever was a preprint that should be deleted, it is this one! [It] is now being used by some to spread doubts about the new vaccines.’
As so often in the Covid story, however, the science keeps evolving. The same team of researchers have now demonstrated ‘unambiguous evidence’ that coronavirus sequences do integrate in the genome. DNA copies of portions of the SARS-COV-2 viral genome were found in almost all chromosomes – the structures that make up the genome – in the human cells studied.
The evidence is so convincing that one previously sceptical expert in the field has added his name to the ten-page paper describing the work, published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
What’s more, sections of virus that become integrated in the genome can subsequently be ‘read’ back into RNA, for further protein synthesis.
The researchers say there is no way these genetic sequences could reassemble into whole, replicating virus. But the findings do help to explain a previous mystery: why some patients continue to test positive weeks or months after they have recovered from Covid-19. The reappearance of viral RNA may be another source of false positive results from the PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test for the presence of viral genetic material, already often used inappropriately to diagnose Covid ‘cases’ in healthy people.
The research was led by stem cell biologist Rudolf Jaenisch and gene regulation specialist Richard Young of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They say they received more intense criticism for publishing their preprint on the findings than for any other studies in their careers.
Sadly, there is a kind of ideological war going on between vaccine sceptics and vaccine zealots – and in this instance, the sceptics were closer to the scientific facts than the zealots, who refused to believe the work could possibly be true.
What the findings might mean for human health is unclear.
Jaenisch and Young say their results in no way imply that the Covid vaccines, as opposed to the virus itself, integrate their sequences into our DNA,
They offer no evidence for that assertion, however, and according to biochemist and molecular biologist Dr Doug Corrigan, the findings strengthen concerns about the safety of the RNA vaccines, putting assertions by regulators that the products ‘do not affect or interact with our DNA in any way’ on shakier ground.
In a blog posting last November – before even the controversial preprint appeared – Corrigan made a case that RNA introduced into our cells via a vaccine might be more likely than RNA from the coronavirus to be transcribed into DNA, and integrated into our core genetic material in the cell nucleus. This was because the RNA provided to cells via the vaccine has been altered in the lab to increase its stability, enabling it to ‘hang around in the cell much longer than viral RNA, or even RNA that our cell normally produces for normal protein production’.
He says the new findings belong to the category of ‘Things We Were Absolutely and Unequivocally Certain Couldn’t Happen Which Actually Happened.’
On an optimistic note, the MIT researchers speculate that they may have stumbled on a natural mechanism for producing continuous immunity against the Covid virus, after a person has been infected.
They say that although only a small fraction of cells in patient tissues express viral proteins at a detectable level, those proteins could be doing the same job as the vaccine itself is intended to do: stimulating protective immunity against future infection.
On the downside, they say, continuous production of the viral proteins might also trigger harmful autoimmune reactions in some patients – a possibility explored in detail by Corrigan in an earlier article, ‘Is a coronavirus vaccine a ticking timebomb?’ He claims that since the RNA vaccines have such a new mode of delivery, they should be tested for 5-10 years to demonstrate that genetic modification is not a major concern.
The scientists who gave us the deadly SARS-COV-2, who then insisted on compulsory lockdowns that dramatically worsened the catastrophe, and who are now pressing for global immunisation as the only way to escape further disaster, have plunged the world into an uncertain future.