New University of Georgia study indicates possible ancient origin for retroviruses, the class to which HIV belongs

ATHENS, Ga. -- Viruses are Trojan Horses, reproducing in animals and plants with sometimes deadly consequences. Since viruses can't reproduce by themselves, they exploit living host cells and use them to produce viral nucleic acid and proteins, then reassemble these into new virus particles.

Particularly dangerous are retroviruses, which use an enzyme called reverse transcriptase to copy themselves into host genomes and replicate. Only recently did scientists discover that a complex retrovirus they named Human Immunodeficiency Virus or HIV caused AIDS. A new study by geneticists at the University of Georgia, however, argues that retroviruses may have been lurking around in animal genomes for millennia.

"It's like thinking that we discovered the use of tools as humans rather recently and then finding out that ancient primates used them, also," said Dr. John McDonald, head of the genetics department. "Scientists had thought that complex retroviruses evolved recently, but our work indicates a possible ancient origin."

The study, led by doctoral student Nathan Bowen, is being published this week in the journal Genome Research.

Retroviruses and related free-moving pieces of genetic material called retrotransposons are extremely important in the genetic makeup of plants and animals, despite the fact they were not discovered until about 50 years ago. For example, half of the maize genome is made up of retroelements, and in some plants such as wheat and pine trees, 90 percent of the genome may be constructed around these "movable genes."

Researchers now believe that these "retroelements" are major causes of genetic mutations and are significant factors in genome evolution. McDonald's laboratory and several others are using the relatively new science of genomics to study how these elements have changed plants and animals. By analyzing the sequences of nucleic acids in certain genomes, they can better und

Contact: John Mcdonald
University of Georgia

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