Human DNA contains ancient viral strands.
If you think that your DNA is comprised of all human parts, you wouldn't be entirely correct. Scientists have found 19 new pieces of DNA that have been left behind by viruses that infected our ancestors hundreds of thousands of years ago. Where did they find them? In our genes.
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According to the findings, which have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, one stretch was found in 50 of 2,500 people. This stretch has the full recipe for the entire virus. However, before panicking ensues, know that it is unknown if the virus can reproduce. However, it has been shown that ancient viruses can affect those who have it.
There have been 17 other pieces of virus DNA found within the human genome in recent years. This study's purpose was to look at the entire human genome, including a large focus on Africa. The ancestors of modern humans originated in Africa and then spread throughout the world.
Most of the work for the research was done at Tufts University and the University of Michigan Medical School. The study was funded by the National Institute of Health.
The findings will add to what we already know about HERVs - human endogenous retroviruses. This is the name given to ancient infectious viruses that inserted DNA copies of their own RNA genetic material in our ancestor's genomes. One of the most famous version of this virus is the modern human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDs.
It turns out that many other virus-generated pieces of our DNA got copies and were handed down by our ancestors. In some cases, they have proven to be helpful like the one that helps form a protective layer around the outside of a fetus. Others, however, are devastating.
These new HERVs are going to be part of a family called HERV-K.
According to the researchers, “This one looks like it is capable of making infectious virus, which would be very exciting if true, as it would allow us to study a viral epidemic that took place long ago,” says senior author and virologist John Coffin, Ph.D. of the Tufts University School of Medicine. “This research provides important information necessary for understanding how retroviruses and humans have evolved together in relatively recent times.”
“Many studies have tried to link these endogenous viral elements to cancer and other diseases, but a major difficulty has been that we haven't actually found all of them yet,” says co-first author Zachary H. Williams, a Ph.D. student at the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences at Tufts University in Boston. “A lot of the most interesting elements are only found in a small percentage of people, which means you have to screen a large number of people to find them.”
“This is a thrilling discovery,” says co-first author Julia Wildschutte, Ph.D., who began the work as a Ph.D. student in Coffin’s lab at Tufts. “It will open up many doors to research. What’s more, we have confirmed in this paper that we can use genomic data from multiple individuals compared to the reference human genome to detect new HERVs. But this has also shown us that some people carry insertions that we can’t map back to the reference.”
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The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health (OD009154, CA089441, GM112339) as well as the American Cancer Society and the F.M. Kirby Foundation.