Lentiviruses are mammalian retroviruses known to infect cattle, cats, horses, sheep, and primates. They are the focus of intense study due to their causative association with AIDS in human. Although our knowledge on the origin and early evolution of HIV has grown exponentially over the past few years, much remains unresolved about the deeper relationships between primate and non-primate lentiviruses, the origin of lentiviruses, and their mode of structural evolution over long periods of evolutionary time. This is because these viruses evolve extremely rapidly, in a conflicting relationship with their hosts, and while their high mutation rate provides a wealth of information documenting their recent history, it also quickly erases evidence of their deeper ancestry. The lifecycle of retroviruses is atypical compared to other viruses in that after appropriate receptor recognition and entry in a specific cell type, their RNA genome is reverse transcribed into double-stranded DNA and integrated into the host genome as a provirus. Occasionally this process can take place in the host germline, and the integrated copy, also called endogenous retrovirus (ERV), may be transmitted vertically from parent to offspring and reach fixation in the host population. As such, ERVs constitute a fossil record of past viral infections that potentially provide an alternative way of gaining insights into the deep evolutionary history of present day exogenous retroviruses.
Although many ERVs have been characterized in mammals (e.g. 8% of the human genome), apparently very few derive from lentiviruses. Two reasons have traditionally been put forward to explain their absence in mammalian genomes: (i) they are of relatively recent evolutionary origin and endogenization has not yet commonly occurred, and/or (ii) they were not able to enter germ cells because of a very specific cell tropism. Recently however, an endogenous lentivirus called RELIK has been identified in the genome of rabbits and hares, whose germline integration was dated at least 12 millions years old. This discovery not only showed that lentiviruses were able to infiltrate mammalian germlines, but also demonstrated that this group of viruses is probably much older than what could previously be inferred based on sequence comparison of extant exogenous lentiviruses. New research now shows that a retrovirus related to HIV became stably integrated into the genomes of lemurs around 4.2 million years ago. The discovery of prosimian immunodeficiency virus (pSIV) offers new insights into the evolution of lentiviruses.
Based on “fossil” sequences collected from different lemur species, the researchers computationally reconstructed an apparently intact and complete DNA sequence for the ancestral prosimian lentivirus. The discovery that two different species of lemurs endemic to Madagascar suffered, independently and quasi-simultaneously, multiple germline infections of pSIV provides evidence that lentiviruses have repeatedly infiltrated the germline of prosimian species. These findings should allow future functional analysis of the extinct virus and advance our understanding of the biology of lentiviruses, including HIV. In addition, the characterization of this ancient lentivirus in lemurs raises the possibility that HIV-like retroviruses are still circulating today in the mammalian fauna of Madagascar.
Parallel Germline Infiltration of a Lentivirus in Two Malagasy Lemurs. 2009 PLoS Genet 5(3): e1000425
Retroviruses normally infect the somatic cells of their host and are transmitted horizontally, i.e., in an exogenous way. Occasionally, however, some retroviruses can also infect and integrate into the genome of germ cells, which may allow for their vertical inheritance and fixation in a given species; a process known as endogenization. Lentiviruses, a group of mammalian retroviruses that includes HIV, are known to infect primates, ruminants, horses, and cats. Unlike many other retroviruses, these viruses have not been demonstrably successful at germline infiltration. Here, we report on the discovery of endogenous lentiviral insertions in seven species of Malagasy lemurs from two different genera – Cheirogaleus and Microcebus. Combining molecular clock analyses and cross-species screening of orthologous insertions, we show that the presence of this endogenous lentivirus in six species of Microcebus is the result of one endogenization event that occurred about 4.2 million years ago. In addition, we demonstrate that this lentivirus independently infiltrated the germline of Cheirogaleus and that the two endogenization events occurred quasi-simultaneously. Using multiple proviral copies, we derive and characterize an apparently full length and intact consensus for this lentivirus. These results provide evidence that lentiviruses have repeatedly infiltrated the germline of prosimian species and that primates have been exposed to lentiviruses for a much longer time than what can be inferred based on sequence comparison of circulating lentiviruses. The study sets the stage for an unprecedented opportunity to reconstruct an ancestral primate lentivirus and thereby advance our knowledge of host–virus interactions.
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