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Endogenous Retroviruses in the Genomics Era
Welkin E. Johnson
Biology Department, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts 02467; email:


Endogenous retroviruses comprise millions of discrete genetic loci distributed within the genomes of extant vertebrates. These sequences, which are clearly related to exogenous retroviruses, represent retroviral infections of the deep past, and their abundance suggests that retroviruses were a near-constant presence throughout the evolutionary history of modern vertebrates. Endogenous retroviruses contribute in myriad ways to the evolution of host genomes, as mutagens and as sources of genetic novelty (both coding and regulatory) to be acted upon by the twin engines of random genetic drift and natural selection. Importantly, the richness and complexity of endogenous retrovirus data can be used to understand how viruses spread and adapt on evolutionary timescales by combining population genetics and evolutionary theory with a detailed understanding of retrovirus biology (gleaned from the study of extant retroviruses). In addition to revealing the impact of viruses on organismal evolution, such studies can help us better understand, by looking back in time, how life-history traits, as well as ecological and geological events, influence the movement of viruses within and between populations.