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Biologists Wake Dormant Viruses and Uncover Mechanism for Survival

It is known that viral "squatters" comprise nearly half of our genetic code. These genomic invaders inserted their DNA into our own millions of years ago when they infected our ancestors. But just how we keep them quiet and prevent them from attack was more of a mystery until EPFL researchers revived them.

The reason we survive the presence of these endogenous retroviruses -- viruses that attack and are passed on through germ cells, the cells that give rise to eggs and sperm -- is because something keeps the killers silent. Now, publishing in the journal Nature, Didier Trono and his team from EPFL, in Switzerland, describe the mechanism. Their results provide insights into evolution and suggest potential new therapies in fighting another retrovirus -- HIV.

By analysing embryonic stem cells in mice within the first few days of life, Trono and team discovered that mouse DNA codes for an army of auxiliary proteins that recognize the numerous viral sequences littering the genome. The researchers also demonstrated that a master regulatory protein called KAP1 appears to orchestrate these inhibitory proteins in silencing would-be viruses. When KAP1 is removed, for example, the viral DNA "wakes up," multiplies, induces innumerable mutations, and the embryo soon dies.

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