Preston Marx, professor of tropical medicine, made news last fall when he published research suggesting that the HIV-like virus that infects monkeys is thousands of years older than previously thought. His research was so noteworthy, in fact, Discover magazine included it among their top 100 science stories for 2010. Marx’s game-changing research appeared at No. 20 on the list.
Simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), which is the ancestor to the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), is between 32,000 and 75,000 years old and may even be more than a million years old, according to genetic analysis of unique SIV strains found in monkeys on Bioko, an island off the coast of Africa.
The research, which appeared in the Sept. 17 issue of the journal Science, calls into question previous DNA sequencing data that estimated the virus’ age at only a few hundred years.
“The biology and geography of SIV is such that it goes from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Ocean all the way to the tip of Africa. It would take many, many thousands of years to spread that far and couldn’t have happened in a couple of hundred years,” said Marx, who is also a virologist at the Tulane National Primate Research Center. Marx led the study in conjunction with Michael Worobey, evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona.
Marx tested his theory that SIV had ancient origins by seeking out DNA samples from monkey populations that had been isolated for thousands of years. His team collected bush meat samples from monkeys on Bioko, a former peninsula that separated from mainland Africa after the Ice Age more than 10,000 years ago.
Researchers found four different strains of SIV that were highly genetically divergent from those found on the mainland. They compared DNA sequences of the viruses with the assumption that they were tracking how both evolved over 10,000 years. The computer modeling showed the rate of mutation to be much slower than previously thought, indicating that the virus is between 32,000 and 75,000 years old to have evolved to its current state. These dates set a new minimum age for SIV, although it is likely to be even older, Marx says.
The research has implications for HIV. SIV, unlike HIV, does not cause AIDS in most of its primate hosts. If it took thousands of years for SIV to evolve into a primarily non-lethal state, it would likely take a very long time for HIV to naturally follow the same trajectory, Marx says.
The study also raises a question about the origin of HIV. If humans have been exposed to SIV-infected monkeys for thousands of years, why did the HIV epidemic only begin in the 20th century? “Something happened in the 20th century to change this relatively benign monkey virus into something that was much more potent and could start the epidemic. We don’t know what that flashpoint was, but there had to be one,” Marx says.
— Keith Brannon