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Biotech Science

The Role of Retroviruses in Human Evolution 133

mhackarbie writes "The current edition of the New Yorker magazine has up a story about endogenous retroviruses in the genomes of humans and other species. Although researchers have known about such non-functional retroviral 'fossils' in the human genome for some time, the large amount of recent genomic data underscores just how pervasive they are, in a compelling tale that involves humans, their primate cousins, and a variety of viral invaders. Some researchers are even bringing back non-functional viral remnants from the dead by fixing their broken genes."
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The Role of Retroviruses in Human Evolution

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  • by Rob Simpson ( 533360 ) on Saturday December 08, 2007 @06:03PM (#21627065)
    HIV is the only virus in which drug resistance is a problem - because most aren't affected by any drugs in the first place. Maybe you're thinking of bacteria []?

    In any case, I'd prefer it if they'd experiment with mouse retroviruses instead...
  • Re:Oh no! (Score:2, Insightful)

    by GwaihirBW ( 1155487 ) on Saturday December 08, 2007 @06:08PM (#21627103)

    Well, the cure might or might not be so easy . . . if we already knew it was a genetic malady, there's a good chance we knew the gene to some degree, and finding out that it's an ancestral retrovirus gives fairly minimal new information on how to address it. If we were once tolerant of it and now are not, that implies some cost to the tolerance-granting genes, since we lost them . . . in that case, they may not be around to find, and even if they are, where do you look? If we acquired some new trait that made us vulnerable to this now-dormant virus, that's going to be even less helpful, and again, how do you tell? All of this boils down to, we've got a touch more information about origin, but it doesn't point us anywhere.

    The real benefits of this research lie elsewhere - in the ability to recover and play with old viruses, see what they do, and possibly track their evolution through the genetic record, which may help us combat the change and spread of nasty current retroviruses like HIV.

  • by Harmonious Botch ( 921977 ) * on Saturday December 08, 2007 @06:12PM (#21627119) Homepage Journal
    If I have beneficial bacteria in my gut that keeps dangerous ones from living there, perhaps we can revitalize some harmless retrovirus to compete for the niche that the AIDS retrovirus lives in.
  • Re:Oh no! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Daniel Dvorkin ( 106857 ) on Saturday December 08, 2007 @06:29PM (#21627271) Homepage Journal
    Researchers work every day with viruses that are known to be incredibly dangerous, not just those that might be such as these putative retroviral fossils. So if you're worrying about something escaping the lab and causing a global pandemic, there are more serious threats. Really, this is pretty safe compared to ongoing work on, say, Ebola.
  • by Cassius Corodes ( 1084513 ) on Saturday December 08, 2007 @07:27PM (#21627621)
    While that might seem a valid comparison it unfortunately wrong on to points

    1. The role of your bacteria in your gut is not to prevent bad bacteria from living there but to help with digestion. However since bacteria on your skin do have this competition role I'll accept it as a valid point.

    2. Viruses come, ursurp the mechanisms of the cell to make it produce copies, and then kill the cell to move on (in most cases). Hence using "good" viruses isn't going to make the bad viruses go away. What has happened with the "good" viruses is that they were once bad, but as part of their attack on a cell they merged their rna into our dna which become deactivated and over time changed into a new and positive role.
  • by Vellmont ( 569020 ) on Saturday December 08, 2007 @08:37PM (#21627953) Homepage

    I just think it's fascinating how viruses occupy this gray area between our definitions of living and non-living.

    Life or living is just a word, not reality. If a virus is alive or not alive is about as interesting a question as asking if submarines swim or not.
  • by belg4mit ( 152620 ) on Saturday December 08, 2007 @10:20PM (#21628459) Homepage
    What do you mean "will?" It's nothing new, so they must have developed a "logical" retort by now.
    We study HIV by infecting chimps and Rhesus monekys. Furthermore, it's long been thought/accepted
    that HIV evolved from SIV.
  • Re:Hmm (Score:3, Insightful)

    by LordLucless ( 582312 ) on Sunday December 09, 2007 @01:49AM (#21629147)
    I'd imagine other forms of life to be more complicated than viruses, and the general consensus seems to be that they developed by random chance - they can't evolve until they're complicated enough to reproduce.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 09, 2007 @11:08AM (#21631117)

    But it's interesting that one of the biologists the friendly article quotes made a comment that almost equated viruses with God.

    You have no idea how very important point that is for today's Darwinist/ID argument, but it is given too little emphasis.

    Retroviral infections could explain bursts of mutations needed for the documented evolution rate without recourse to any "Intelligent Designer" of sort.

    It may explain how separation between species could happen: A single mutation on single specimen could not spread easily, you would need at least "Adam" and "Eve" with same new trait. However, a viral disease would "rubber stamp" whole isolated population with same genetic "patch", sometimes making them reproductively incompatible with others of their kind, thus creating a new specie in very short timespan. There is a mention in TFA of signs of something like that happening between our ancestors and other related apes.

    Also, viral RNA is more susceptible to mutations, because it has no error-correcting capability of redundant-content DNA, so it is obvious candidate for mutations' kitchen. Now, what we'll about to see next is that organisms which varied little over long time periods (e.g. most insects) are either retrovirus intolerant (you touch anything in their DNA, they die), hard to infect, or have reached the equilibrium, where further variations would be detrimental, so their shape doesn't change from their fossils' shape because their niche stays the same.

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