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Vertebrates frequently domesticated retroviral genes

Researchers from Nanjing Normal University have made an important breakthrough on the evolution of vertebrate-retrovirus interaction. The article, entitled “Frequent retroviral gene co-option during the evolution of vertebrates”, was published in Molecular Biology and Evolution with graduate student Jianhua Wang as the first author.

Retroviruses infect a wide range of vertebrates, causing diverse diseases such as AIDS and cancers. The retrovirus replication requires integration into the host genome. When retroviruses infect host germline cells, the integrated retroviruses are vertically transmitted from parents to offspring, forming endogenous retroviruses. On occasion, hosts “domesticated” retroviral genes to mediate their own biological functions, that is, co-option. Little has been unknown about the extent of retroviral gene co-option in vertebrates. Wang et al. analyzed >700 vertebrate genomes and identified as many as 177 independent retroviral gene co-option events in vertebrates. Most of the co-opted retroviral genes identified by Wang et al. have not been reported previously. Among these retroviral gene co-option events, 93 and 84 involve gag and env genes, respectively. Wang et al. found that retroviral gene co-option might have not been maintained for very long time periods. Interestingly, Wang et al. found co-opted retroviral genes experienced different selection pressures, suggesting that they are likely to perform different biological functions. The study by Wang et al. provides a comprehensive picture of co-opted retroviral genes during the evolution of vertebrates, and might have important implications in understanding the ancient evolution of vertebrate-retroviruses interaction.

Support for the project was provided by the National Natural Science Foundation of China and the Priority Academic Program Development of Jiangsu Province.