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Viral DNA that infected human ancestors 50 million years ago could help protect us from diseases, according to a new study. Around eight percent of the DNA in modern humans derives from these ancient microscopic invaders, researchers report.

These endogenous viruses were not believed to play a major role in humans today, but this idea may need to be rethought in light of this new finding.

Over time, the human body has learned to alter the purpose of this ancient viral DNA, turning them into tools to fight contemporary disease. The innate immune system within people was found to be crippled when fragments of viral DNA within our genomes is disabled.

"We show that some of these endogenous viruses have shaped our biology. Within mammalian genomes are reservoirs of viral DNA that have fueled innovation of the innate immune system," said C├ędric Feschotte, human geneticist and co-senior author of a paper announcing the results of the study.

When the human innate immune system recognizes the presence of a foreign invader, it releases interferons, which trigger cells to release a barrage of genes to battle the pathogen. Researchers soon discovered thousands of endogenous retroviruses were activated in the presence of the molecular signal. In addition, detailed investigation revealed these ancient genetic codes are stored near genes utilized by the immune system to fight disease, further suggesting a connection.

Read More: Techtimes

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