Viral Fossil Records: A Look into the Past! (and the Future?)


by Misha Gupta
figures by Xiaomeng Han

For shut to 2 centuries, people have been learning the organic previous utilizing fossil data. In latest historical past, now we have added the flexibility to reconstruct the sequence of our DNA to our arsenal. Furthermore, phylogenetic bushes (buildings that outline the evolutionary relationships within the line of descent from a standard ancestor) have been created for all manners of organisms, permitting us to review their complicated evolutionary relationships. Now, we’re slowly uncovering the “Viral Fossil Record,” inferring and tracing again the historical past of viral evolution via the ages. This is finished utilizing present current genetic info as a method to look into the previous. So, what does this ‘fossil report’ inform us? Can it have implications for the way forward for illness transmission inside our species? 

Viruses and retroviruses

While most microbiologists agree that viruses aren’t dwelling organisms, they’re thought-about infectious brokers. Viruses are small items of genetic materials protected by a capsid (a protein shell) and an outermost layer known as the envelope. The genetic materials could be both DNA or RNA. Capsids and envelopes present a stunning array of morphological variety between viruses, together with the spike proteins from the SARS-CoV viruses that trigger COVID19, in addition to the extra difficult icosahedral buildings of bacteriophages.

Uniquely, viruses can not replicate outdoors a bunch organism or on their very own. Not solely do viruses lack the equipment required to make their very own practical proteins, however additionally they can not synthesize the energy-carrying molecule ATP. Viruses are fully reliant on host cells for copy and use a wide range of strategies to co-opt host cell equipment for their very own functions. For instance, viruses insert their very own genetic materials into host cells by  binding to the cell after which degrading their very own capsid to launch their DNA or RNA into the host cell. The host cell equipment is then used to supply a number of copies of the virus’s genetic materials till, for sure varieties of viruses, the cell ultimately bursts from the sheer quantity of viral particles being produced inside it, releasing extra viral particles to proceed the cycle (Figure 1). 

Figure 1: Viral DNA, often called an Endogenous Virus Elements (ERV) is built-in into the host genome and handed from father or mother to progeny when the host genome replicates.

Despite not being categorised as dwelling organisms, viruses are nonetheless topic to evolutionary pressures! They can accumulate mutations through the strategy of replication inside host cells, and bear choice. Some viruses, significantly the retrovirus household, combine their very own genetic materials into the host genome, leaving traces within the genetic code that we are able to use to review the evolutionary historical past of those organisms and interactions. Not solely have viruses modified our genomes by bringing in novel genetic materials, however host–pathogen interactions have additionally formed our previous in dramatic methods. This ‘fossil report’ of viral evolution that may be extracted from fashionable DNA holds many fascinating clues to our previous.

Retroviral ‘fossils’ in fashionable DNA

Since retroviruses can combine into human DNA and get handed on from father or mother to offspring, now we have a wealth of data to deduce viral evolutionary historical past utilizing phylogenetic instruments. Within people, it’s estimated that these retroviral DNA segments comprise as much as 8% of the human genome, having collected in our DNA over a number of an infection occasions. This proportion is extraordinarily excessive, contemplating the truth that practical genes account for less than 2% of the genome!  The viral genetic fragments which might be handed down from father or mother to progeny, and built-in by way of reproductive cells like sperm and egg, are known as Endogenous Virus Elements or EVEs. For retroviruses, these ‘fossils’ are often called Endogenous Retrovirus Elements, or ERVs (Figure 1).

Looking for prior collection of advantageous antiviral genes in fashionable genomes will help us establish when viral infections occurred. This could be prolonged to review how these viral infections led to the evolution of recent or improved protection mechanisms in different species, in addition to how the virus could have responded to evade these defenses. Modern genomes comprise details about this evolutionary arms race that has been happening for millenia.

Paleo-virologists can use variations and similarities within the sequences of viral fragments between completely different species to this point when a selected an infection occasion could have occurred, and to estimate how lengthy that specific virus could have been actively circulating. The fee of evolution and mutation of viruses can be approximated, and has been discovered to be surprisingly gradual over the course of evolutionary time scales; for instance, fashionable viral sequences haven’t gained sufficient mutations to be indistinguishable from historical viruses. This contrasts starkly with the present excessive charges of viral mutation and evolution we see in fashionable viruses, like RNA viruses, suggesting that these could also be taking place on the timescale of some many years as an alternative of over the course of evolutionary historical past. Studying these ‘fossils’ additionally lets us uncover genes that have been co-opted from viral DNA by the host, and that now play key roles in necessary organic processes! In a extra pressing context, such research additionally allow us to infer when and the way viruses ‘jumped’ between species, as is predicted to have occurred with COVID19! 

Past and future viral pandemics

Scientists have used these research to hint tales of pandemics that occurred in our previous, together with one which lasted for almost 15 million years! This specific pandemic, brought on by ERV-Fc and thought to have begun 30 million years in the past within the Oligocene Epoch, was extremely prevalent and was believed to have contaminated at the very least 28 numerous mammalian species (Figure 2). The evolutionary success of this virus is considered attributable to genetic recombination– exchanging genes with different viruses might have introduced in sufficient genetic novelty to maintain adapting to the host protection mechanism for 15 million years! These research function stepping stones to enhance our understanding of how and when viruses evolve, in addition to how we evolve to battle them. 

Hydroponic
Figure 2: The ERV-Fc virus was lively beginning round 30 million years within the Oligocene epoch. We can hint its evolutionary historical past again, nearly as if its fossil report!

This has develop into significantly necessary in our present world, which is grappling with problems with local weather change. While viruses could not depart bodily data behind, they will survive for hundreds of thousands of years in harsh circumstances, together with the layers of permafrost and glaciers. As these now begin to soften, we run an actual danger of those historical viruses coming again into circulation. We are additionally at an elevated danger for viral zoonotic jumps (as we noticed with the SARS-COV-19 virus). Viruses from non-human species are more likely to develop into pathogenic to people as we encroach upon beforehand undisturbed habitats of wildlife. Could these research into the previous assist us higher take care of the longer term?

While the jury on that’s nonetheless out, one factor is obvious: viruses have been round for hundreds of thousands of years and they’re right here to remain! The evolutionary arms race is on! 


Misha Gupta is a 3rd 12 months graduate pupil within the division of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. 

Xiaomeng Han is a graduate pupil within the Harvard Ph.D. Program in Neuroscience. She makes use of correlated mild and electron microscopy to review neuronal connectivity.

Cover picture by laurentarroues from pixabay

For More Information:

  • To find out about one other historical pandemic that occurred round 25,000 years in the past, click on right here.
  • Read extra about pandemics all through historical past right here.
  • If you’re involved in paleovirology and HIV, learn extra right here.

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