Luis P. Villarreal: We Need a Nonlinear Language for Life


Having just published a book on the origin and synthesis of life, I was fascinated to learn that I’d missed interviewing one of the field’s most provocative scientists — virologist Luis Perez Villarreal – who takes a “virus-first” perspective to life. But Villarreal, founding director of the Center for Virus Research, University of California at Irvine, says he acknowledges that he is a bit of an outsider in the sense that his virus-first perspective is somewhat dismissed by traditional biologists. Nevertheless, Villarreal’s thinking draws applause in Europe and he is among the first experts the American mainstream media consults when viruses like Ebola and HIV loom large in the news.

But part of the reason why such viruses linger in the news, Villarreal says, is the fact that we are spinning our wheels by regarding evolution as a linear process when it is clearly nonlinear. In fact, Villarreal thinks we need a new language to deal with the dynamic of viruses, which exist as nonlinear collective entities, i.e., consortia. He considers viruses active organisms that are not only the biggest component of the biomass but comprise 10% of the human genome. Villarreal goes as far as saying that “all living habitats . . . have and must operate in a virosphere” — Ex virus omnia (from virus everything) is his motto.

Luis Villarreal is a native of East Los Angeles, which he describes as a neighborhood where collectives (gangs) emerge spontaneously. But his family moved around during his childhood because of his father’s professional interests and commitments — as a musician recording with “Los Caballeros Trio,” as a mechanic, and as a tortilla machines salesman. Villarreal says his father also liked to buy, fix-up, and sell the family’s —> Read More