Retroviruses - the family of viruses that includes HIV - are almost half a billion years old, according to new research by scientists at Oxford University. That's several hundred million years older than previously thought and suggests retroviruses have ancient marine origins, having been with their animal hosts through the evolutionary transition from sea to land. The findings, reported online on January 10,2017 in jNature Communications, will help us understand more about the continuing “arms race” between viruses and their hosts. The open-access article is titled “Marine Origin of Retroviruses in The Early Palaeozoic Era.” Study co-author author Dr. Aris Katzourakis, from Oxford University's Department of Zoology, said: “Very little has been known about the ancient origin of retroviruses, partly because of the absence of geological fossil records. Retroviruses are broadly distributed among vertebrates and can also transmit between hosts, leading to novel diseases such as HIV, and they have been shown to be capable of leaping between distantly related hosts such as birds and mammals. But until now, it was thought that retroviruses were relative newcomers - possibly as recent as 100 million years in age.” “Our new research shows that retroviruses are at least 450 million years old, if not older, and that they must have originated together with, if not before, their vertebrate hosts in the early Paleozoic era. Furthermore, they would have been present in our vertebrate ancestors prior to the colonization of land and have accompanied their hosts throughout this transition from sea to land, all the way up until the present day.” Retroviruses are a family of viruses that includes the HIV virus responsible for the AIDS pandemic. They can also cause cancers and immunodeficiencies in a range of animals.
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