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When Competing Viruses Unify: Evolution, Conservation, and Plasticity of Genetic Identities


In the early 1970s, Manfred Eigen and colleagues developed the quasispecies model (qs) for the population-based origin of RNAs representing the early genetic code. The Eigen idea is basically that a halo of mutants is generated by error-prone replication around the master fittest type which will behave similarly as a biological population. But almost from the start, very interesting and unexpected observations were made regarding competition versus co-operation which suggested more complex interactions. It thus became increasingly clear that although viruses functioned similar to biological species, their behavior was much more complex than the original theory could explain, especially adaptation without changing the consensus involving minority populations. With respect to the origin of natural codes, meaning, and code-use in interactions (communication), it also became clear that individual fittest type-based mechanisms were likewise unable to explain the origin of natural codes such as the genetic code with their context- and consortia-dependence (pragmatic nature). This, instead, required the participation of groups of agents competent in the code and able to edit code because natural codes do not code themselves. Three lines of inquiry, experimental virology, quasispecies theory, and the study of natural codes converged to indicate that consortia of co-operative RNA agents such as viruses must be involved in the fitness of RNA and its involvement in communication, i.e., code–competent interactions. We called this co-operative form quasispecies consortia (qs-c). They are the essential agents that constitute the possibility of evolution of biological group identity. Finally, the basic interactional motifs for the emergence of group identity, communication, and co-operation—together with its opposing functions—are explained by the “Gangen” hypothesis.

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