Half-a-million years-old viruses found in modern human DNA
DNA from Neanderthals and Denisovans compared with modern cancer patients
Illnesses that currently plague modern man apparently annoyed our Neanderthal brethren as well. Scientists have discovered that ancient viruses inherited from Neanderthals have now been found in modern human DNA.
The Oxford team now plans to look for possible links between these ancient viruses, belonging to the HML2 virus family, and cancer and HIV/AIDS.
Comparing DNA from Neanderthals and another ancient race called the Denisovans, scientists also examined the DNA for modern day cancer patients.
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Researchers found evidence of Neanderthal and Denisovan viruses in the modern DNA. This suggests that they originated in a common ancestor more than half a million years ago.
Neanderthals co-existed with modern men in Europe for thousands of years, but belonged to a different human sub-species. The Neanderthals went extinct around 30,000 years ago.
Around eight percent of human DNA is made up of endogenous retroviruses, or ERVs, which are DNA sequences left by viruses which pass from generation to generation. These in turn form part of the 90 percent of the genome, sometimes called "junk" DNA, that contains no instruction codes for making proteins.
"I wouldn't write it off as 'junk' just because we don't know what it does yet," Dr. Gkikas Magiorkinis, from Oxford University's Department of Zoology says. Co-leading the research, the doctor said "Under certain circumstances, two 'junk' viruses can combine to cause disease. We've seen this many times in animals already. ERVs have been shown to cause cancer when activated by bacteria in mice with weakened immune systems."
The Oxford team now plans to look for possible links between these ancient viruses, belonging to the HML2 virus family, and cancer and HIV/Aids.
"How HIV patients respond to HML2 is related to how fast a patient will progress to Aids, so there is clearly a connection there," Magiorkinis says.
"HIV patients are also at much higher risk of developing cancer, for reasons that are poorly-understood. It is possible that some of the risk factors are genetic, and may be shared with HML2.
"They also become reactivated in cancer and HIV infection, so might prove useful as a therapy target in the future."
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