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Stanford U: Ancient viruses are part of us and we need them

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From The Telegraph:

The human genome is littered with sequences left behind from long-ago viral infections but now scientists have found the code is still active

Now researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine have found that genetic material from a retrovirus called HERV-H is not only active, but is crucial in allowing a fertilised human egg to grow into an embryo.

“What’s really interesting is that these sequences are found only in primates, raising the possibility that their function may have contributed to unique characteristics that distinguish humans from other animals.

Let’s back up and be cautious here. For one thing, many primates are not particularly clever, so we need to be much more specific about why it worked (if it did) so well in the human, and not especially in the tarsier. And the way things have been going, the same sequence or a very similar one could turn up in the opossum, but no one has looked. Who knew the water bear shared so many genes with unrelated life forms?

“We’re starting to accumulate evidence that these viral sequences, which originally may have threatened the survival of our species, were co-opted by our genomes for their own benefit.” More.

But we don’t know that either, do we? HERV-H could once have been a useless or even useful parasite that somehow got incorporated into the system.

Question: What were fertilised human eggs doing, to grow into embryos, before HERV-H was available? Or are we to assume it always was available, for all humans? Stay tuned.

See also: Horizontal gene transfer: Sorry, Darwin, it’s not your evolution any more

and This just in: One sixth of water bear’s genes are from microbes Researcher: More than 90 percent of these come from bacteria, but others come from archaea (a distinct group of microbes), fungi, and even plants. “The number of them is pretty staggering,” he says.

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15 Replies to “Stanford U: Ancient viruses are part of us and we need them

  1. 1
    daveS says:

    And the way things have been going, the same sequence or a very similar one could turn up in the opossum, but no one has looked.

    Well, an opossum genome is available here, first published in 2007. If it is true that no one has looked, despite Dr Sebastiano’s clear statement that the sequences are found only in primates, then that would be quite an oversight on his part.

  2. 2
    News says:

    Good point, daveS, but new stuff is turning up every day now. Dr.Sebastiano probably does not know that the sequence turns up only in primates. Many life forms are still being discovered, let alone mapped. At least we will know something, either way.

  3. 3
    gpuccio says:


    This is extremely good. It is a very definite support to my model that retrotransposons are a modeling tool of biological design.

    Here, the role of a specific lincRNA, HPAT5, of retrotransposon origin, is clearly shown and analyzed, and it acts as a regulatory element in a very complex epigenetic network, including miRNAs.

    Just a simple clue: when we find “co-opted” in a darwinist fairy tale, we can safely read: “designed”.

  4. 4
    Zachriel says:

    News: Question: What were fertilised human eggs doing, to grow into embryos, before HERV-H was available? Or are we to assume it always was available, for all humans?

    It’s not untypical to network evolution for something that once played a minor role to then become essential.

  5. 5
    bornagain says:


    The usual unsubstantiated balderdash from Zach.

    Unguided Darwinian evolution cannot even explain the origin of a single gene/protein by unguided material processes, much less how a sequence becomes ‘essential’ so early in embryonic development.

    Darwin or Design? – Paul Nelson at Saddleback Church – Nov. 2012 – ontogenetic depth (excellent update) – video
    Text from one of the Saddleback slides:
    1. Animal body plans are built in each generation by a stepwise process, from the fertilized egg to the many cells of the adult. The earliest stages in this process determine what follows.
    2. Thus, to change — that is, to evolve — any body plan, mutations expressed early in development must occur, be viable, and be stably transmitted to offspring.
    3. But such early-acting mutations of global effect are those least likely to be tolerated by the embryo.
    Losses of structures are the only exception to this otherwise universal generalization about animal development and evolution. Many species will tolerate phenotypic losses if their local (environmental) circumstances are favorable. Hence island or cave fauna often lose (for instance) wings or eyes.

    How to Build a Worm – Paul Nelson – video

    A Listener’s Guide to the Meyer-Marshall Debate: Focus on the Origin of Information Question -Casey Luskin – December 4, 2013
    Excerpt: “There is always an observable consequence if a dGRN (developmental gene regulatory network) subcircuit is interrupted. Since these consequences are always catastrophically bad, flexibility is minimal, and since the subcircuits are all interconnected, the whole network partakes of the quality that there is only one way for things to work. And indeed the embryos of each species develop in only one way.” –
    Eric Davidson – developmental biologist

    Endogenous retroviruses regulate periimplantation placental growth and differentiation – 2006

    Retrovirus in the Human Genome Is Active in Pluripotent Stem Cells – Jan. 23, 2013
    Excerpt: “What we’ve observed is that a group of endogenous retroviruses called HERV-H is extremely busy in human embryonic stem cells,” said Jeremy Luban, MD, the David L. Freelander Memorial Professor in HIV/AIDS Research, professor of molecular medicine and lead author of the study. “In fact, HERV-H is one of the most abundantly expressed genes in pluripotent stem cells and it isn’t found in any other cell types.

    The definitive response on Endogenous Retroviruses (ERV’s) and Creation, with Dr. Jean Lightner

    Refutation Of Endogenous Retrovirus – ERVs – Richard Sternberg, PhD Evolutionary Biology – video
    Sternberg, R. v. & J. A. Shapiro (2005). How repeated retroelements format genome function. Cytogenet. Genome Res. 110: 108-116.
    Excerpt: Employing an information science model, the “functionalist” perspective on repetitive DNA leads to new ways of thinking about the systemic organization of cellular genomes and provides several novel possibilities involving retroelements in evolutionarily significant genome reorganization.

  6. 6
    Mung says:


    “The most important evolutionary book since Dawkins’ Selfish Gene.”

  7. 7
    Collin says:

    This sort of supports my pet theory that the Designer used viruses as tools for genetic engineering and maintenance. And that viral diseases are rogue viruses that used to have important maintenance functions but their rna degraded and they could no longer fulfill their designed purpose.

  8. 8
    Collin says:


    I see that you already have a more sophisticated version of my idea.

  9. 9
    gpuccio says:


    Glad that I am not alone!

    We are already a group, although very small… 🙂

  10. 10
    aarceng says:

    Only primates have ERV’s? Don’t other animals get viral infections?

  11. 11
    gpuccio says:

    From the paper:

    “Recent studies have catalogued more than 10.000 lincRNAs in the human genome, and have found that TEs are present in more than two-thirds of mature linc RNA transcripts, thus contributing to lineage specific diversification of vertebrate lincRNA repertories.”

    More than two-thirds!

  12. 12
    gpuccio says:

    From the paper:

    These findings, together with our results, demonstrate that different HERV elements have distinct roles in regulating fundamental biological processes, including the acquisition of pluripotency in vivo during embriogenesis. Dissecting the role of each single HERV element may be of paramount importance to understand the specifics of human development. We anticipate that direct genetic dissection via genome editing, as demonstrated here, may find that many cell fate decisions, including those of human pre- and post- implantation development, are modulated by complex regulatory mechanisms that employ “recycled” retroviral sequences to that were introduced and modified during the course of evolution to confer human specific dynamics to development.

    Emphasis mine.


    complex regulatory mechanisms = tons of functional complexity

    “recycled” = designed

    introduced and modified = shaped by a design process

    to confer = the purpose of the designer

  13. 13
    gpuccio says:


    HERV = Human Endogenous Retro Virus

  14. 14
    Peer says:

    Check out the Baranome Hypothesis and the VIGE-first hypothesis:

  15. 15
    gpuccio says:


    Thank you for the link. Interesting.

    From an ID point of view, the important thing is that transposable elements act as design tools. That’s the point. It is certainly interesting to understand if they start as viruses or as integrated components of the genome. But the crucial point is: they are tools for guided variation.

    The important point is: functional information in the genome arises in the course of natural history as a result of conscious design.

    If the methodology of implementation is guided variation, as it seems ever more likely, then it is also likely that the variation we are discussing is not so much apparently random but guided mutation in the course of replication, as in the traditional neo darwinian idea, but rather apparently random but guided activity of transposons. That’s a big difference, indeed!

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