The mongoose, the pheasant, the pox, and the retrovirus.

Publication Type:

Journal Article


PLoS biology, Volume 11, Issue 8, p.e1001641 (2013)


2013, Human Biology Division, September 2013


Paleovirology is the study of ancient viruses. The existence of a paleovirus can sometimes be detected by virtue of its accidental insertion into the germline of different animal species, which allows one to date when the virus actually existed. However, the ancient and the modern often connect, as modern viruses have unexpected origins that can be traced to ancient infections. The genomes of two species of mongooses and an egg-laying mammal called an echidna show that a virus currently present in poultry, the reticuloendotheliosis virus (REV), is actually of ancient exotic mammalian origin. REV apparently spread to poultry through a circuitous route involving the isolation of malaria parasites from a pheasant from Borneo housed at the Bronx Zoo that was contaminated with REV. Repeated passage of this virus in poultry adapted the virus to its new host. At some point, the virus got inserted into another virus, called fowlpox virus, which has spread back into the wild. Although REV may still exist somewhere in a mammalian host, its modern form links an 8 million-year-old infection of the ancestor of a mongoose to a virus that now is circulating in wild birds through malaria studies in the mid-20(th) century. These lessons of ancient and modern viruses have implications for modern human pandemics from viral reservoirs and for human interventions that may come with unintended consequences.