We know what retroviruses were up to 407 million years million years ago

Coelacanth The deep history of retroviruses is still obscure. Retroviruses can leave integrated copies within their hosts’ genomes, providing a fossil record for studying their long-term evolution. Endogenous forms of foamy viruses, complex retroviruses known to infect only mammalian species, appear to be extremely rare, so far found only in sloths and the aye-aye.

This paper reports the discovery of endogenous foamy virus-like insertions within the genome of a so-called ‘living fossil’, the (Latimeria chalumnae). It provides evidence suggesting that foamy viruses and their hosts share a coevolutionary history of more than 407 million years, and that foamy viruses accompanied their vertebrate hosts on the evolutionary transition from water to land. These findings indicate that the retroviruses originated in the primeval ocean millions of years ago.


An Endogenous Foamy-like Viral Element in the Coelacanth Genome. (2012) PLoS Pathog 8(6): e1002790. doi:10.1371/journal.ppat.1002790
Little is known about the origin and long-term evolutionary mode of retroviruses. Retroviruses can integrate into their hosts’ genomes, providing a molecular fossil record for studying their deep history. Here we report the discovery of an endogenous foamy virus-like element, which we designate ‘coelacanth endogenous foamy-like virus’ (CoeEFV), within the genome of the coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae). Phylogenetic analyses place CoeEFV basal to all known foamy viruses, strongly suggesting an ancient ocean origin of this major retroviral lineage, which had previously been known to infect only land mammals. The discovery of CoeEFV reveals the presence of foamy-like viruses in species outside the Mammalia. We show that foamy-like viruses have likely codiverged with their vertebrate hosts for more than 407 million years and underwent an evolutionary transition from water to land with their vertebrate hosts. These findings suggest an ancient marine origin of retroviruses and have important implications in understanding foamy virus biology.

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One Response to We know what retroviruses were up to 407 million years million years ago

  1. Why stop at 407 million years? Arguably, something not unlike a retrovirus predates, by a short while, the first living organism, 4billion years ago. It was responsible for reverse transcribing the RNA (unstable, uncontrollable, and unorganized) into DNA, which then formed the basis of life.

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