The discovery of exoplanets within putative habitable zones revolutionized astrobiology in recent years. It stimulated interest in the question about the origin of life and its evolution. Here, we discuss what the roles of viruses might have been at the beginning of life and during evolution. Viruses are the most abundant biological entities on Earth. They are present everywhere, in our surrounding, the oceans, the soil and in every living being. Retroviruses contributed to about half of our genomic sequences and to the evolution of the mammalian placenta. Contemporary viruses reflect evolution ranging from the RNA world to the DNA-protein world. How far back can we trace their contribution? Earliest replicating and evolving entities are the ribozymes or viroids fulfilling several criteria of life. RNA can perform many aspects of life and influences our gene expression until today. The simplest structures with non-protein-coding information may represent models of life built on structural, not genetic information. Viruses today are obligatory parasites depending on host cells. Examples of how an independent lifestyle might have been lost include mitochondria, chloroplasts, Rickettsia and others, which used to be autonomous bacteria and became intracellular parasites or endosymbionts, thereby losing most of their genes. Even in vitro the loss of genes can be recapitulated all the way from coding to non-coding RNA. Furthermore, the giant viruses may indicate that there is no sharp border between living and non-living entities but an evolutionary continuum. Here, it is discussed how viruses can lose and gain genes, and that they are essential drivers of evolution. This discussion may stimulate the thinking about viruses as early possible forms of life. Apart from our view "viruses first", there are others such as "proteins first" and "metabolism first."
Keywords: RNA world; evolution; origin of life; ribozymes; viruses.
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