A retrovirus that has lain dormant in chimpanzees and their ancestors for at least one million years is surrendering its secrets. A team of scientists has resurrected a key portion of the virus and determined how it infects cells.
Ordinarily, endogenous viruses — ancient viruses that were long ago engulfed into their host’s genome — are studied on the basis of their DNA sequence alone. Increasingly, however, researchers are bringing such viruses ‘back to life’ and putting them through the same laboratory tests that contemporary viruses are subject to.
"Our major motivation for getting involved in this is to try and explain how our host defences evolved," says Paul Bieniasz, a virologist at the Rockefeller University in New York, whose team identified the molecular receptor that was presumably used by the ancient chimpanzee virus. Mimicking such defences could help to combat modern viruses, such as HIV, he says.
The motivation is good but are there unintended consequences? See the methods they followed in conducting the "research"…
The virus that his team resurrected, known as CERV2, lies within the genomes of contemporary chimpanzees, but not those of humans, suggesting that chimpanzees’ ancestors became infected after they diverged from human ancestors 5–6 million years ago. "The virus clearly replicated around the times that nascent humans were trotting around Africa and beginning to think about colonizing the rest of the world," Bieniasz says.
This explanation of why humans were never infected should make the scientists pause: Jonathan Stoye, a virologist at the MRC National Institute for Medical Research in London, says that biological factors aren’t needed to explain why only chimpanzee ancestors were infected with the virus. Perhaps, he points out, ancient humans were never exposed to the virus in the first place.
Remember Ian Malcom prediction in Jurassic Park? He predicted through his theory that the island will quickly proceed to behave in "unpredictable fashion" and that it was "an accident waiting to happen". Does this read like a science fiction novel where an experiment done without consequences is about to go awry?