Evolution Seals the Case Against a Man Who Knowingly Spread HIV

By Andrew Moseman | November 16, 2010 11:53 am

WhitfieldTreeAnthony Eugene Whitfield is currently serving a 178-year prison sentence for, among other things, knowingly infecting several sexual partners with HIV. But how do you prove that the women in question contracted the virus from him?

From Ed Yong:

To demonstrate Whitfield’s guilt, the prosecution had to show that he had wilfully exposed women to HIV, that his five HIV-positive partners contracted their infections from him. Fortunately, David Hillis from the University of Texas and Michael Metzker from Baylor College of Medicine knew exactly how to do that. They had evolutionary biology on their side.

Hillis and Metzker knew that HIV is a hotbed of evolution. The bodies of HIV carriers produce around a billion new virus particles every day, and their genomes change and shuffle at furious speeds. But when infections pass from one person to another, this viral variety plummets. Thousands of genetically distinct viruses might jump into a new host, but usually, only one of these managed to gain a foothold and set up a new infection. Every time it moves from host to host, HIV passes through a genetic bottleneck and that provides a massive clue about who passed an infection to whom.

For great detail on how the scientists built these HIV trees and used them in the case against Whitfield, as well as what it means for the future of prosecution, read the rest of this post at Not Exactly Rocket Science.

Related Content:
Not Exactly Rocket Science: Genetic Study Shows How HIV Controllers Get Their Groove
80beats: HIV’s Primate Precursor Is Very Old. Why Did It Jump To Humans So Recently?
80beats: Good News: Anti-Microbial Gel Cuts HIV Infection Rates for Women
80beats: New HIV Hope? Researchers Find Natural Antibodies That Thwart the Virus

Image: Scaduto et. al / PNAS

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Andy Taylor

    One more for evolution, zero for ID.

  • Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    What is ID?

    [No, nearly seriously. It seems to have died early, as expected. It bottlenecked back to hardcore creationism…]

  • http://www.devilsmatrix.com mkhan

    six or sex degrees of seperation is cause of spread of all kinds of viruses. The most effecient viruses are those which do not kill their new host quickly. This gives the new host a chance to spread the virus.
    So those women or men with multiple sex are loaded with a variety of viruses. Such people should not be touched with 10 ft pole leave alone be intimate with them

  • Nick

    I thought I learned in biology class that viruses weren’t considered living things because they didn’t have DNA?

  • Naveed

    Nick, that’s a tough question, they don’t have DNA but they do reproduce and evolve. So they’re more complicated than chemicals but are they living things….I’m not sure

  • Cassandra

    Actually they do have DNA, they have genes, which is why the debate if they’re living or not living is still going on.

    Take a look: http://discovermagazine.com/2010/apr/20-things-you-didn.t-know-about-viruses

    Some viruses sneak DNA into a bacterium through its, um, sex appendage, a long tube known as a pilus.

  • RhyniaPomeroy

    What’s the big deal. He should not be allowed any ART and let to die from AIDS. But that not what will happen. He will get the best ART for free while those women will have to pay for theirs if they can afford it and still have to deal with all life everyday problems. He should be castrated.


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