I have read an article about an endogenous retrovirus called PtERV1. It is present in gorillas and chimps, but is missing in humans (original study here).

According to the article, this retrovirus is very similar to HIV. And all of us (gorillas, chimps and humans) have a protein called TRIM5α to fight against PtERV1.

Nearly at the end of the article the author says: currently, there is no explenation for why the endogenous retrovirus (PtERV1) has never entered the human genome.

Is that a typo? Isn't a missing endogenous retrovirus just basic heredity? Especially because humans have the TRIM5α protein against PtERV1 just like gorillas and chimps, which indicate that we used to have it, but we lost it due to how heredity works.

Or did the author meant something deeper that the average user would not understand without a lot of pre-knowledge about genetics?


I think your question boils down to:

Why do modern chimpanzees contain endogenous PtERV1 whereas humans do not?

This is discussed in the original research article:

Kaiser SM, Malik HS, Emerman M. 2007. Restriction of an Extinct Retrovirus by the Human TRIM5α Antiviral Protein. Science 316(5832):1756-1758.

PtERV1 was active after the phylogenetic split of humans and chimpanzees, so any infection would be from separate events. In other words, the endogenous virus was not inherited from a common ancestor:

Comparison of individual PtERV1 proviruses in gorilla and chimpanzee genomes suggest that this virus was active 3 to 4 million years ago, after the separation of chimpanzee and human lineages.

They hypothesize that modern humans evolved from ancestors that were protected from PtERV1 by TRIM5α:

Although we cannot rule out the possibility that PtERV1 never infected human ancestors for other reasons, our data do suggest the possibility that TRIM5α was fixed in human populations because of its ability to confer protection against PtERV1 and that modern humans have descended from ancestors who resisted infection.

This does raise the question of why humans were not infected whereas chimpanzees were, despite both containing PtERV1 restricting TRIM5α. This seems to be out of the scope of your question, but they do talk about it in the article if you're interested.

  • $\begingroup$ Just to clarify, PtERV1 was not inherited to gorillas and chimps by their common ancestor. Gorillas and chimps got infected by PtERV1 separately. Correct? $\endgroup$
    – WatchHat
    Dec 16 '17 at 11:46
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @WatchHat Yes, that’s correct. $\endgroup$
    – canadianer
    Dec 16 '17 at 17:34

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