Friday, November 19, 2010

Animal genomes riddled with the 'skeletons' of ancient viruses

ebola240.jpgIt’s time for animals - including humans - to admit that the bacteria, viruses and other microbes have won. Our bodies are home to many times more bacterial cells than animal cells and countless trillions of viruses. Ancient retroviruses make up a good size chunk of our genome. Now, scientists have discovered that most any virus can set up shop in an animal's genomes and lay dormant for millions of years.

A scan of 44 mammal genomes, plus those of several mosquito and tick vectors and two birds that could serve as reservoirs, has uncovered DNA sequences that can be traced to 10 different families of viruses, including some related to viruses that cause hepatitis B, Ebola, rabies and dengue. Most of the viral sequences are riddled with enough mutations to be considered junk, but some appear to encoding working genes co-opted by their host. The work is published online today in the journal PLoS Genetics.

It’s not obvious how all these viruses got into animal genomes. The researchers, Aris Katzourakis at the University of Oxford, UK, and Robert Gifford at Rockefeller University in New York, searched specifically for viruses that aren’t retroviruses, which are obligated to copy their DNA into hosts. Many but not all of the viruses infect their hosts persistently or replicate inside of the nucleus, however, offering ample opportunity to take up residence in the genomes of germ cells.

The work is just a first look at all the non-retroviruses in the animal genome, but Katzourakis and Gifford turned up a few interesting findings. For instance, their scan identified sequences from filoviruses, the family Ebola belongs to, in the genomes of bats, tarsiers, several rodents, opossums and even wallabies. This hints that filoviruses have a much wider host range than the primate and bat species which these viruses are known to infect. ...

via The Great Beyond: Animal genomes riddled with the 'skeletons' of ancient viruses.

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