Endogenous retroviruses are found not only in humans, but also in other mammals such as horses, cattle, apes, koalas and, as has now been shown, in polar bears and giant pandas. (Credit: Zoo Wuppertal) Enlarge

July 15, 2013 — Endogenous retroviruses (ERVs) are viruses that at some point in the past inserted themselves into the nuclear genome of a host's germ cell. Once integrated in a germ cell the virus would be passed on from one generation to the next and the endogenous retroviral genome would therefore be inherited to new species that evolve from the original host. 'ERV sequences and fragments make up about eight per cent of the human genome,' explains Professor Jens Mayer from the Department of Human Genetics at Saarland University. Endogenous retroviruses are found not only in humans, but also in other mammals such as horses, cattle, apes, koalas and, as has now been shown, in polar bears and giant pandas.

Working in collaboration with Professor Alex D Greenwood and Kyriakos Tsangaras from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, Jens Mayer has been taking a closer look at the DNA sequences from polar bears and great pandas. 'We have characterised endogenous retroviral sequences in both bear species and found a strong similarity between the two, which indicates that these two virus species are closely related,' says human geneticist Mayer. The researchers also identified ERV sequences in other bear species such as the brown bear, the black bear and the spectacled bear. 'Using molecular dating methods we have now been able to show that the retrovirus became integrated into the genetic material of an ancestor of today's bear species around 45 million years ago,' explains Greenwood. The research team also showed that the original retrovirus was closely related to those found in the genomes of bats and cattle. Interestingly, the viruses found in bears exhibit strong similarity with several endogenous retroviruses found in the human genome. 'Some of these sequences are suspected of playing a role in the occurrence of cancer, neurodegenerative or autoimmune diseases,' says Mayer.

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