A new study coming out of England suggests that the HIV/AIDS virus is much older than we used to believe. Just how much older? Well, researchers at Oxford University believe this retrovirus goes back half a billion years. That makes the HIV/AIDS retrovirus at least 100 million years older than most scientists previously believed. This study offers many clues as to the origin of HIV, and it’s expected to have a huge impact on how researchers develop HIV/AIDS treatments in the future.
Oxford Study Shows How HIV/AIDS Virus Was Around During Paleozoic Times
The Oxford researchers involved in this study took a look at unearthed genomic fossils in this study. Specifically, they were looking for certain genome sequences from endogenous retroviruses resembling “foamy” viruses. “Foamy” viruses are those that diverge alongside their hosts. Just a few creatures they looked at include ray finned fish and amphibians.
Surprisingly, professors found traces of the AIDS retrovirus on these and many more fossil remains, all of which suggest that AIDS might have had marine origins and transitioned onto land with animal hosts. Conservatively, Oxford researchers estimate the AIDS retrovirus must be at least 450 million years old. Dr. Aris Katzourakis, a professor in Oxford’s Department of Zoology, said that retroviruses such as AIDS
…must have originated together with, if not before, their vertebrate hosts in the early Paleozoic Era.
For those who aren’t aware, the Paleozoic Era took place from roughly 542 million years ago to 251 million years ago. This was the era in which vertebrate animals first colonized land, and scientists believe the HIV/AIDS retrovirus traveled with these vertebrates as part of an “arms race” between the viruses and their hosts.
More Information on Retroviruses And How Long They’ve Been Around
Some readers might be wondering why there is a “retro” in the word retrovirus. The short answer is that the “retro” stands for RNA. All retroviruses, HIV/AIDS being only one of specific strain in a much broader category, are made up of RNA. These retroviruses work to convert themselves into DNA and make a home for themselves in the host’s genome. Other retroviruses are responsible for various cancers and other deficiencies.
The key finding from Oxford’s study was to show the scientific community that all retroviruses are far older than previously imagined. This could help scientists develop new and complex solutions to wisely combat retroviruses by understanding the long history of how they have attacked vertebrates. Dr. Katzourakis told reporters,
As we understand the nature of the interaction between viruses and host immunity, we will be better placed to intervene in this delicately balanced arms race in order to develop novel treatments and interventions.
Although the true origin of the AIDS virus is still unknown, scientists can now formulate more accurate hypotheses with the knowledge that the disease originated further back in time than previously imagined.
This First Hard Evidence On Retroviruses’ Origin Could Help AIDS Treatment
This Oxford study has helped many in the scientific community involved in researching retroviruses. Before this study, scientists had almost no hard evidence on the origin of retroviruses. Thanks to the fossil records the Oxford team discovered and reported on, now scientists around the world know for a fact that the AIDS virus was on this planet at least half a billion years ago.
This means retroviruses have a longer history of adaptation and survival than was previously imagined. These findings could initiate serious changes in how doctors try to treat HIV/AIDS future. The full Oxford paper was published in the latest edition of the journal Nature Communications under the title “Marine Origin of Retroviruses in the Early Palaeozoic Era.”
Photo by Miles Smith, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.