Researchers have found an ancient group of retroviruses that affected a wide range of animals some 15 to 30 million years ago. The findings will help researchers better understand the evolution of viruses
Scientists have uncovered the history of ancient viruses and found that the history of viruses stretches back as far as 30 million year ago.
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A combined team of researchers reveals that a group of retroviruses affected a wide range of animals some 15 to 30 million years ago and it continued to spread continent to continent and transferred from one species to another.
The virus, called ERV-Fc, dates back to at least Oligocene epoch, a period which is marked by a dramatic climate cooling and eventually led to Ice Ages. Oligocene is an important point in the history of Earth which is characterized by major global changes including the expansion of grasslands and the emergence of large mammals or world’s predominate fauna.
Researchers found the so called ‘virus fossil’ in the DNA of living organisms that widely disseminated among 28 of 50 modern mammal’s ancestors.
“Viruses have been with us for billions of years and exist everywhere that life is found. They therefore have a significant impact on the ecology and evolution of all organisms, from bacteria to humans,” said study co-author Welkin Johnson, professor of biology at Boston College.
“Unfortunately, viruses do not leave fossils behind, meaning we know very little about how they originate and evolve. Over the course of millions of years, however, viral genetic sequences accumulate in the DNA genomes of living organisms, including humans and can serve as molecular ‘fossil’ for exploring the natural history of viruses and their hosts.”
Using such ‘fossil records,’ researchers attempted to uncover the history of ancient viruses, where those infectious agents were found in the world and how they adapted to their mammalian hosts.
To do this, researchers sequenced the genomes. Then, they reconstructed retroviral genes and compared them with recovered sequences.
Researchers were able to identify patterns of evolutionary changes in the genes of these viruses and how they adapted to different types of mammalian hosts. Researchers found that viruses had the ability to exchange genes with each other and that may be the secret of their evolutionary success.
"Mammalian genomes contain hundreds of thousands of ancient viral fossils similar to ERV-Fc," said lead author William E. Diehl from University of Massachusetts.
“The challenge will now be to use ancient viral sequences for looking back in time, which may prove insightful for predicating the long-term consequences of newly emerging viral infections. For example, we could potentially access the impact of HIV on human health 30 million years from now.”
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These findings could help researchers better understand how, when and why new viruses evolve and effects their hosts on long-term.