For millennia, humans and viruses have been locked in an evolutionary back-and-forth -- one changes to outsmart the other, prompting the second to change and outsmart the first. With retroviruses, which work by inserting themselves into their host's DNA, the evidence remains in our genes. Last year, researchers at Rockefeller University and the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center brought an ancient retrovirus back to life and showed it could reproduce and infect human cells. Now, the same scientists have looked at the human side of the story and found evidence that our ancestors fought back against that virus with a defense mechanism our bodies still use today.
"This is the first time that we've been able to take an ancient retrovirus and analyze how it interacts with host defense mechanisms in the laboratory in the present day," says Paul Bieniasz, who is an associate professor and head of the Laboratory of Retrovirology at Rockefeller and a scientist at the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center. Bieniasz and graduate student Youngnam Lee took their resurrected virus, called HERV-K, tested its strength against molecules involved in human antiviral defense and published their results in the Journal of Virology (online ahead of print, June 18).
How did they bring back the HERV? A composite of the pseudogenes?