Immunity to viral infections sounds like a good thing, but it can come at a price. Millions of years ago, we evolved resistance to a virus that plagued other primates. Today, that virus is extinct, but our resistance to it may be making us more vulnerable to the present threat of HIV.
Many extinct viruses are not completely gone. Some members of a group called retroviruses insinuated themselves into our DNA and became a part of our genetic code. Indeed, a large proportion of the genomes of all primates consists of the embedded remnants of ancient viruses. Looking at these remnants is like genetic archaeology, and it can tell us about infections both past and present.
When retroviruses (such as HIV, right) infect a cell, they insert their own DNA into their host’s genome, using it as a base of operations. From there, the virus can pop out again and make new copies of itself, re-infect its host or move on to new cells.
If it manages to infect an egg or sperm cell, the virus could pass onto the next generation. Hidden inside the embryo’s DNA, it becomes replicated trillions of times over and ends up in every single one of the new individual’s cells.
These hitchhikers are called ‘endogenous retroviruses‘. While they could pop out at any time, they quickly gain mutations in their DNA that knocks out their ability to infect. Unable to move on, they become as much a part of the host’s DNA as its own genes.
In 2005, a group of scientists led by Evan Eichler compared endogenous retroviruses in different primates and found startling differences. In particular, chimps and gorillas have over a hundred copies of the virus PtERV1 (or Pan troglodytes endogenous retrovirus in full). Our DNA has none at all, and this is one of the largest differences between our genome and that of chimps.