Alexander Hayward, Charlie K. Cornwallis, Patric Jern. Pan-vertebrate comparative genomics unmasks retrovirus macroevolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 112(2):464-469. 2015.
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Although extensive research has demonstrated host-retrovirus microevolutionary dynamics, it has been difficult to gain a deeper understanding of the macroevolutionary patterns of host-retrovirus interactions. Here we use recent technological advances to infer broad patterns in retroviral diversity, evolution, and host-virus relationships by using a large-scale phylogenomic approach using endogenous retroviruses (ERVs). Retroviruses insert a proviral DNA copy into the host cell genome to produce new viruses. ERVs are provirus insertions in germline cells that are inherited down the host lineage and consequently present a record of past host-viral associations. By mining ERVs from 65 host genomes sampled across vertebrate diversity, we uncover a great diversity of ERVs, indicating that retroviral sequences are much more prevalent and widespread across vertebrates than previously appreciated. The majority of ERV clades that we recover do not contain known retroviruses, implying either that retroviral lineages are highly transient over evolutionary time or that a considerable number of retroviruses remain to be identified. By characterizing the distribution of ERVs, we show that no major vertebrate lineage has escaped retroviral activity and that retroviruses are extreme host generalists, having an unprecedented ability for rampant host switching among distantly related vertebrates. In addition, we examine whether the distribution of ERVs can be explained by host factors predicted to influence viral transmission and find that internal fertilization has a pronounced effect on retroviral colonization of host genomes. By capturing the mode and pattern of retroviral evolution and contrasting ERV diversity with known retroviral diversity, our study provides a cohesive framework to understand host-virus coevolution better.