Viral Archaeology

A study published in PLoS Pathogens on July 29th shows that human and other vertebrate genomes contain ancient genetic sequences from two often deadly families of RNA virus – Filovirus and Bornavirus – families not previously known to leave genetic material in vertebrate DNA.

Drs. Belyi, Levine, and Skalka compared over 5,000 genes from all known non-retroviral families with single-stranded RNA genomes against the genomes of 48 vertebrate species, uncovering 80 separate viral sequence integrations into 19 different vertebrate species. From this, they were able to identify strong connections in two virus groups – Bornaviruses (found in humans, cows, and lemurs, amongst others) and filoviruses (in guinea pigs, bats, opossums, amogst others) – the latter of which includes Ebola and Marburg viruses.

While it’s still not known how genetic material from RNA viruses (which do not use DNA to replicate) could have entered host DNA, this extensive study presents a significant leap in our understanding of the relationship between the human genome and the traces of viral material which we still carry in our DNA.

The paper has received a wide range of media coverage, including:

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