Prehistoric ancestor of leukaemia virus found in bats

Prehistoric ancestor of leukaemia virus found in bats
Traces of DNA from the family of viruses - between 20 and 45 million years old - that cause a rare type of leukaemia have been found in the bat genomes, filling the "last major gap" in retrovirus fossil record, scientists say. The findings, by the University of Glasgow in the UK and The Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague, represent the first concrete piece of evidence that the 'Deltaretrovirus' group has a truly ancient origin in mammals.

The results also offer key insights to the characteristics of these viruses and will allow scientists to better understand them in the future. The Deltaretrovirus group which includes T-lymphotrophic viruses, currently estimated to infect 15 to 20 million people worldwide, can cause a rare type of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma called 'Adult T-Cell Leukaemia/Lymphoma (ATLL).

Infection with this virus is very rare in the UK however, and most people who carry the virus will not develop the disease. It has long been thought that deltaretroviruses have infected humans since prehistoric times. However, because these viruses had no 'fossil record', their deeper origins have until now remained a mystery.

"The discovery of this viral sequence fills the last major gap in the fossil record of retroviruses. It provides a means of calibrating the timeline of interaction between deltaretroviruses and their hosts," said Robert Gifford from the University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research. "Importantly this finding could also be used as a tool for understanding the mechanisms that mammals have evolved specifically to counter the threat from these viruses," said Gifford.

"Understanding the history of these viruses will help scientists to better understand how they affect people and animals now and in the future," he said. Researchers identified the remnants of a deltaretrovirus in the genome of ' bent-winged bats'. The sequence was found to be integrated in a range of distantly related Minopterid species, demonstrating that it originated 20-45 million years ago.

Researchers characterised the sequence, and found an unusual - and as yet unexplained - feature of the virus, which is also present in contemporary deltaretroviruses. The discovery that this characteristic has defined deltaretroviruses for millions of years indicates that it is somehow key to their biology, and could help scientists study them in the future.

The retrovirus fossil record is comprised of DNA sequences that are derived from ancient retroviruses, and have been 'preserved' in animal genomes. The study was published in the journal PNAS.
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