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Three Greek scientists find ancient viruses in human DNA

10 October 2017

Ancient viruses may be lurking in humans’ DNA after scientists noted a strange protein in pregnant women, according to a September study. A protein dubbed HEMO has been found in unborn babies, but the gene originally came from a virus which may have infected mammalian ancestors more than 100 million years ago, according to the study “Roles of Endogenous Retroviruses in Early Life Events,” the New York Timesreported.

Aris Katzourakis, a virologist at the University of Oxford, Gkikas Magiorkinis of the University of Athens and Pagona Lagiou, Adjunct Professor of Epidemiology of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, recently published a commentary in the journal Trends in Microbiology in which they explored the possibility that viral genes that produce proteins like Hemo are affecting our health in a variety of unexpected ways.

Some of our ancient viruses may be protecting us from disease; others may be raising our risks for cancer, among other conditions. “It’s not an either-or — are these things good or bad? It’s a lot more complicated than that,” Dr. Katzourakis said in an interview. “We’re barely at the beginning of this research.”

Viral DNA makes up approximately 8 percent of the human genome — or roughly 100,000 pieces — which scientists believe can impact humans’ health both positively and negatively. The study researched whether these viral genes had an affect on humans’ genetic makeup, specifically with regard to the HEMO protein.

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