Bats use gene from ancient Ebola-like virus, study says

Avatar By Tyler MacDonald | 2 years ago

About 18 million years ago, a mouse-eared bat ancestor “stole” a gene called VP35 from an ancient Ebola-like virus. The new study that highlights the finding suggests that the gene has remained fairly intact over the years and sheds light on the possibility that the gene could regulate the immune system’s response to threats.

“We’re using a multidisciplinary approach to understand the evolution, structure and function of a viral gene co-opted by a mammal,” said Derek Taylor, an evolutionary biologist at the University at Buffalo. “From an evolutionary standpoint, it’s rare that you can actually see a viral gene sequence like this that has remained intact in a mammalian host. Most of these things are eroded over time — they get chopped up and shuffled around.”

“But VP35 is highly conserved,” he continued. “It’s similar in all the bats we looked at, and the bat versions remain very close to what you see in modern Ebola and Marburg viruses. This conservation suggests that the gene has been preserved for an important purpose.”

The data suggest that VP35 proteins are immune suppressors that carry instructions for the creation of a protein that inhibits the immune response of infected animals. But some questions still remain, such as the activity of the gene in mouse-eared bats, the protein’s possible production and—if mouse-eared bats do produce it—its specific benefits.

“Our study explores VP35 function, but further research is needed to determine the specific evolutionary benefit,” Taylor said. “Why has this gene been conserved for so long? We don’t quite know the answer, and it’s possible that VP35 has some other function in bats that we haven’t yet discovered.”

The findings were published in Cell Reports.