Ancient Viral Trail Left Us Vulnerable

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An ancient battle against a virus contained in chimpanzees and primates may have played a big role in why HIV and AIDS is so widespread across the world today. Scientists recently said that when chimpanzees overcame an ancient virus, it left humans more vulnerable to the AIDS virus in modern-day society.

Events that involved pathogens like bacteria and viruses so long ago may have had a big impact on how susceptible we are today to infectious diseases. And if you look at the news over the past decade, these diseases are quite a sizeable problem.

The scientists highlight one particular ancient virus, “Pan troglodytes endogenous retrovirus” (PtERV1), that holds clues to HIV’s current impact. What essentially happened was that the battle against this virus occurred during a crucial time in human evolution. It forced the body to put a large stake in one gene — but this gene doesn’t protect against another retrovirus. That would be HIV.

The PtERV1 virus likely disappeared 2 million years ago. Before that, the scientists say it infected ancient gorillas, chimpanzees, and monkeys — but not humans. The research team actually studied the virus by finding tiny bits of its DNA inside the genes of chimpanzees.

The team’s incredible research found the primates had a gene (also found in humans) that worked to destroy the PtERV1 virus before it could grow and spread. While that gene was successful in this regard, it isn’t so effective against modern retroviruses. And the body’s reliance on this gene for protection may have made all of us more vulnerable to HIV.

Retroviruses, such as HIV, have been slipping into the genes of primates and animals for millions of years. They slip right into chromosomes and DNA, and thus get passed on to future generations. In this way, retroviruses can survive for a long time. What this study did is illustrate why humans are prone to HIV and AIDS. What it didn’t do is try and see how to battle HIV from here on out.

HIV damages or destroys the body’s immune cells, weakening the defense against bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Cancers and infections, such as pneumonia, have an easier path inside you. A late-stage HIV infection is called AIDS, which is a worldwide epidemic. It’s been around for 25 years and it’s killed 25 million people.