The ancestors of chimpanzees and gorillas were infected with a deadly retrovirus about three to four million years ago, but there is no evidence it infected ancestors of modern-day humans, according to research by genome scientists. The virus struck after humans had split off the evolutionary tree from primates, researchers said. The infection may have played a role in the evolution of such great apes as chimps and gorillas. The research appears in the April issue of the journal Public Library of Science-Biology, which is available online on March 1.
Researchers studying portions of the genome containing 'retroelements,' also known as junk DNA, found many copies of a gene sequence in the chimp and gorilla genome that didn't appear anywhere in the human genome. They translated that genome sequence into its corresponding protein, and discovered that it was the remnant of a retrovirus, a type of virus that copies its genetic information into the host's genome. Evidence suggests that the 'retroelement' originated from an external retrovirus that actively infected ape species in the past.
"The reason retroviruses are so deadly, at the genetic level, is that they have a tremendous potential to mess up a gene and interfere with its expression," explained Dr. Evan Eichler, UW associate professor of genome sciences and co-author of the study. "That can have negative effects. It's a double-whammy: the virus infected and possibly killed off some of the population, but also caused genetic errors in survivors. Those errors would have later eliminated more of the population."