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An ancient virus may be the reason human stem cells can transform

An ancient virus may be the reason human stem cells can transform

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The embryonic stem cells responsible for producing every other type of cell in the human body gained their power from an ancient virus that copied itself into our DNA millions of years ago, according to new research. National Geographic reports that the discovery could lead to more effective stem-cell treatments for diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson's disease, among other ailments.

The new research, published today in Nature Structural & Molecular Biology, offers new insights on pluripotency, the ability of stem cells to transform into other types of cells. The study's authors say their research demonstrates that an ancient virus known as human endogenous retrovirus subfamily H, or HERV-H, plays a key role in pluripotency.

Harnessing viral DNA to evolve more effectively

Retroviruses work by inserting their own DNA into a host cell, which then produce new copies of the retrovirus. When retroviruses infect sperm or egg cells, that DNA can be passed on to descendants. About 8 percent of human DNA is said to be made up of these endogenous retroviruses.

For their study, researchers treated HERV-H with snippets of RNA to prevent it from working normally. When they did, they found that cells stopped producing the proteins associated with pluripotency. National Geographic notes that non-primates developed pluripotency without HERV-H. But the finding suggests that in rare cases, organisms can harness viral DNA to evolve more effectively. As one of the study's authors, Guillaume Bourque of McGill University, told National Geographic: "That can be faster than just relying on random mutations to get something that might work."