A HERV-K provirus in chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas, but not humans

Madalina Barbulescu, Geoffrey Turner, Mei Su, Rachel Kim, Michael I. Jensen-Seaman, Amos S Deinard, Kenneth K. Kidd, Jack Lenz

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20 Scopus citations


Evidence from DNA sequencing studies strongly indicated that humans and chimpanzees are more closely related to each other than either is to gorillas [1-4]. However, precise details of the nature of the evolutionary separation of the lineage leading to humans from those leading to the African great apes have remained uncertain. The unique insertion sites of endogenous retroviruses, like those of other transposable genetic elements, should be useful for resolving phylogenetic relationships among closely related species. We identified a human endogenous retrovirus K (HERV-K) provirus that is present at the orthologous position in the gorilla and chimpanzee genomes, but not in the human genome. Humans contain an intact preintegration site at this locus. These observations provide very strong evidence that, for some fraction of the genome, chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas are more closely related to each other than they are to humans. They also show that HERV-K replicated as a virus and reinfected the germline of the common ancestor of the four modern species during the period of time when the lineages were separating and demonstrate the utility of using HERV-K to trace human evolution.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)779-783
Number of pages5
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number10
StatePublished - May 15 2001
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Ape tissue samples were kindly provided by Stanford University, the Yerkes Regional Primate Center, the Henry Doorly Zoo, and the Milwaukee County Zoo. This work was supported by research grant CA44822 and training grants GM07491 and CA09060 from the National Institutes of Health.


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