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Curr Biol. 2001 May 15;11(10):779-83.

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

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Department of Molecular Genetics, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, 1300 Morris Park Avenue, Bronx, NY 10461, USA.


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.

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