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In fly DNA, the footprint of a fly virus

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- In a curious evolutionary twist, several species of a commonly studied fruit fly appear to have incorporated genetic material from a virus into their genomes, according to new research by University at Buffalo biologists.

The study found that several types of fruit fly -- scientific name Drosophila -- harbored genes similar to those that code for the sigma virus, a fly virus in the same family as rabies. The authors believe the genetic information was acquired during past viral infections and passed on from fruit fly parent to offspring through many generations.

The discovery could open the door for research on why flies and other organisms selectively retain viral genes -- dubbed "fossil" genes -- through evolution, said lead author Matthew Ballinger, a PhD candidate in UB's Department of Biological Sciences.

One hypothesis is that viral genes provide an anti-viral defense, but scientists have had trouble testing this theory because viral genes found in animals are often millions of years old -- ancient enough that the genes' genetic sequence differs significantly from that of modern-day viruses.

The new study, in contrast, uncovered a viral gene that appears to be relatively young, with genetic material closely mirroring that of a modern sigma virus.

"We don't know that these genes have an anti-viral function, but it's something we'd like to test," Ballinger said. "It's tempting to think that these genes are retained and express RNA because there's some kind of advantage to the host."

He and his co-authors -- Professor Jeremy Bruenn and Associate Professor Derek Taylor in UB's Department of Biological Sciences -- reported their results online on June 26 in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. The research, supported in part by UB's Center for Advanced Molecular Biology and Immunology, will also appear in a forthcoming print edition of the journal.


Contact: Charlotte Hsu
University at Buffalo

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