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Frank Ryan – Four Way Interview

Frank Ryan is a consultant physician and an innovative evolutionary biologist. He has pioneered the concept of viruses as symbionts. His book on tuberculosis, renamed The Forgotten Plague, was a non-fiction book of the year for the New York Times, while his Darwin’s Blind Spot created interest in academic and lay circles, leading to Frank being elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London. Frank’s new book for 2011 is Metamorphosis/ The Mystery of Metamorphosis, in the UK and US respectively. Frank’s books have been the subject of many TV and radio documentaries. He is also an occasional reviewer of books for the New York Times.
Why science?
I’m a physician with an interest in evolutionary biology, so science has been my life for forty years. It attracted me in the first place because it tries to answer some of the great mysteries of life and the universe through logic and experiment.
Why this book?
I’ve always been fascinated by the dramatic changes of metamorphosis. One of the most fascinating is the highly topical evolutionary thread that links the tadpole larva of the sea squirt, which probably evolved more than 500 million years ago, to the present-day development of the human forebrain in the foetus. Metamorphosis bridges these extraordinary evolutionary distances. Twelve years ago Lynn Margulis, the famous US scientist, asked me to take an interest in the work of Don Williamson. I see his work as involving the most extreme hybridisation theory, and even more importantly, extreme hybridisation experiments ever in evolutionary biology. In two of his experiments he produced what may be the first ever artificial life form produced in the lab. The experiment is described in more detail on my website.
What’s next?
My personal field is the role of viruses in the origins of life and its subsequent diversity. So this interest, which I term “viral symbiosis” (which was described in my book, Virolution), will continue to preoccupy me.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
The first ever symbiotic role for a HERV-K (human endogenous retrovirus) has just been reported. HERV-Ks are specific to mammals and include the only HERVs exclusive to humans. It appears to be expressing its genes deep within the human placenta – the involvement of HERV-Ks in our human evolution is very exciting.

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