Thursday, April 9, 2009

Tiny lemurs hold clues to big mysteries

Dr. Anne Yoder, director of the Duke Lemur Center, likens Madagascar to a remarkable scientific library. She likens lemurs to irreplicable "volumes" filled with information of incredible value. According to the work of RJ Gifford and colleagues reported by Welkin E. Johnson of Harvard Medical School in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the tiny Gray mouse lemur may hold a thread that could help unravel the mystery of the evolution of the HIV and AIDS viruses.

History is written in the genetic material of this tiny lemur. According to Johnson, viruses are intracellular parasites, which cannot exist without their host. Once a virus becomes extinct, it vanishes without a trace. The one exception is the Retroviridae, and Gifford and colleagues have unearthed a retroviral fossil clearly related to modern AIDS viruses. The information lies in small sequence fragments resembling lentiviral sequences in the archives of Microcebus murinus (gray mouse lemurs.)

Don't worry. Lemurs can't give you AIDS, but within their genetic material they may hold a mirror that can help scientists figure out the events that led to the modern AIDS epidemic. One more reason to protect this small but critically important endangered species.

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