Viruses hijack the cells of other organisms, using them as factories to copy themselves. Animals and plants have a number of different locks and codes that help to keep the viruses out, but viruses are capable of evolving new ways of breaking the codes extremely quickly. The new research shows that genes controlling a part of the immune system that fights viruses actually evolve much faster than almost all other genes, evidence of the host's evolutionary race to keep the viruses at bay.
In their research, the scientists found evidence that some genes that participate in so-called RNAi mechanisms evolve much faster than the vast majority of other genes in the fly's genome. This is relevant for the virus-host arms race because RNAi pathways--which exist in both plants and animals--participate in molecular defenses against viruses by homing in on viral genetic material and directing its enzymatic destruction. Viruses can evolve quickly to out-maneuver RNAi mechanisms, but hosts would be expected to rapidly evolve countermeasures of their own to resist new viral strategies. The new research provides evidence for such rapid evolution of some RNAi genes: The researchers found that some RNAi components evolve far faster than 97% of all other fruit fly genes. This rapid evolution illustrates the vital role of R NAi in antiviral defense, and it shows that these genes can be central players in the evolution of host organisms in response to the ever-changing strategies of viral attacks.