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HIV Ancestry

February 6, 2013

The type of virus that includes HIV may have been circulating in primates for 12 million years.



Deep roots for HIV.  I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Lentiviruses, the type of virus that includes HIV, have been circulating in non-human primates for 5 to 12 million years.  That’s over a hundred times longer than previous estimates.  Prior studies relied on viral genes, which mutate constantly and are hard to track.  So instead, Virologist Michael Emerman, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of Washington, looked at anti-lentivirus genes in primates that arose during past outbreaks.

MICHAEL EMERMAN (Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center);

We can date back to when those changes occurred in the DNA of the host, by tracing back through evolution.

Emerman notes that over forty non-human primate species carry lentiviruses today, some of which could potentially jump to humans like HIV did.  He says that studying antiviral genes like these in present-day primates could help researchers plan treatments in the event that happens.  I’m Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.

Scanning electron microscope (SEM) image of HIV. (C. Goldsmith/CDC)