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Academic & Professional Books  Organismal to Molecular Biology  Genetics

Discovering Retroviruses Beacons in the Biosphere

By: Anna Marie Skalka(Author)
177 pages, 36 colour & 1 b/w illustrations, 2 tables
A scholarly yet fascinating book about retroviruses and why they are both unusual and influential in evolution.
Discovering Retroviruses
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  • Discovering Retroviruses ISBN: 9780674971707 Hardback Oct 2018 Usually dispatched within 5 days
Price: £26.95
About this book Contents Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

Approximately eight percent of our DNA contains retroviral sequences that are millions of years old. Through engaging stories of scientific discovery, Anna Marie Skalka explains our evolving knowledge of these ancient denizens of the biosphere and how this understanding has significantly advanced research in genetic engineering, gene delivery systems, and precision medicine.

Discovering Retroviruses begins with the pioneer scientists who first encountered these RNA-containing viruses and solved the mystery of their reproduction. Like other viruses, retroviruses invade the cells of a host organism to reproduce. What makes them "retro" is a unique process of genetic information transfer. Instead of transcribing DNA into RNA as all living cells do, they transcribe their RNA into DNA. This viral DNA is then spliced into the host's genome, where the cell's synthetic machinery is co-opted to make new virus particles. The 100,000 pieces of retroviral DNA in the human genome are remnants from multiple invasions of our ancestors' "germline" cells – the cells that allow a host organism to reproduce. Most of these bits of retroviral DNA are degenerated fossils, but some have been exploited during evolution, with profound effects on our physiology.

Some present-day circulating retroviruses cause cancers in humans and other animals. Others, like HIV, cause severe immunodeficiencies. But retroviruses also hold clues to innovative approaches that can prevent and treat these diseases. In laboratories around the world, retroviruses continue to shed light on future possibilities that are anything but "retro".


List of Tables and Figures

1. Early Pioneers
2. Amending the Central Dogma
3. The Origin of Retroviruses
4. Retroviruses and Evolution
5. Revealing the Genetic Basis of Cancer
6. HIV and the AIDS Pandemic

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Customer Reviews (1)

  • A scholarly and fascinating book
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 12 Jun 2019 Written for Hardback

    In the already unusual world of viruses, retroviruses stand out for being even more so. Called “retro” because they reverse the flow of genetic information from RNA to DNA, rather than the normal DNA to RNA, they have turned out to be ancient, omnipresent, and incredibly influential. They are also important as they cause diseases such as AIDS. With Discovering Retroviruses, Anna Marie Skalka delivers a book dedicated to this particular group that is as technical as it is fascinating.

    I was really looking forward to this book and have mentioned it a number of times in previous reviews as several authors have highlighted that retroviruses are something quite special (see e.g. Viruses and Virusphere). Where normal viruses commandeer the host’s biomolecular machinery for their reproduction, retroviruses are even more intimately entwined with their hosts, transferring their genetic information to them.

    Skalka first sets the stage with a short history of genetics, from Mendel to Crick and onwards to the “central dogma” (see Unravelling the Double Helix for more). That dogma refers to the finding that DNA is copied into single-stranded RNA which is then translated, three letters at a time, into amino acids that, when strung together, make up the workhorses of the cell: proteins. It has become a cornerstone of genetics. And exactly because of this, many scientists were not ready to accept the first suggestions in 1964 that retroviruses do it backwards, turning their little RNA genome into a string of DNA that becomes part of the host genome. Rather than a textbook approach that lays out the facts, Skalka chooses to tell the story chronologically, following the timeline of discoveries and introducing all the key players.

    As also mentioned in Human Errors, modern sequencing technology has revealed that our DNA is littered with remnants of retroviruses, many of which have become inactive and have suffered random mutations. The numbers are quite staggering: whereas ~1% of the human genome codes for all the proteins that make us tick, another 8% is of retroviral origin and larger fractions still consist of other jumping elements and so-called retrotransposons. Slowly but surely, what was initially deemed junk actually has a function (see also Junk DNA and The Deeper Genome).

    For one, this extra DNA offers hotspots of so-called recombination (i.e. the re-arranging of parts of an organism’s genetic material), which is one way to generate the genetic variation on which evolution can act. In the process, things sometimes break and diseases are caused. But it is not all bad news. Skalka details how this extra genetic material has been co-opted by our immune system; has added the digestive enzyme amylase, found in the pancreas, to our salivary glands allowing us to digest starch better; and has also been involved in the evolution of the placenta. Liam Drew asked the question: “what makes us mammal?” (see my previous review of I, Mammal). One of his answers was: “the placenta did”. But ultimately, as Skalka shows here, retroviruses did. Without them, the placenta would not have happened. And, amazingly, mammals evolved them on five independent occasions!

    There are other fascinating revelations about evolution throughout the book. Retroviruses may have very well been a necessary link in the transition from an RNA world (which is how many scientists believe life started, see Life from an RNA World) to a DNA world. I was similarly fascinated to read more about the use of retroviruses as an independent line of evidence when drawing up phylogenetic trees (i.e. family trees based on molecules such as DNA). As stretches of retroviral DNA are initially inserted in identical pairs, one way to mine them for information is by comparing mutation rates. This can reveal a timeline of when certain infections occurred and whether this happened before of after two species evolved to become separate. (My explanation leaves out some subtleties, Skalka goes into far more detail)

    Two further chapters give detailed accounts of how retroviruses have been implicated in causing both certain cancers and AIDS. Especially the chapter on AIDS and HIV goes into great detail on the biochemical and genetic basis of the disease, the development of drugs, the scary denialism propagated by a small minority (see also Pseudoscience), and the research that traced the origin to a virus that jumped from primates to humans in the 1900s (see also Virus Hunt). And, as opposed to Viruses and Virusphere, Skalka does describe the recent discovery and developments around CRISPR, which consists of viral DNA stored in the host as a kind molecular vaccination card (see also A Crack in Creation).

    Discovering Retroviruses is a short book, but it is dense and quite technical. I found I had to give it my full attention, sometimes going over certain passages twice to make sure I understood them. The readability is slightly hampered by the many abbreviations and gene and protein names that come with this field (a glossary would have been welcome in that regard), but that is made up for by a large number of clear colour illustrations that are very helpful in schematically showing how certain mechanisms work. The chronological format also means that you have to tease some of the details out of the narrative, although Skalka does an excellent job summarising things at the end of each chapter, and in her epilogue. As far as I know, Skalka’s is the first book on this topic aimed at a wider readership. If you have a serious interest in viruses, and retroviruses in particular, this well-researched and scholarly book is a must-read.
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Anna Marie Skalka is Professor Emerita at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia.

By: Anna Marie Skalka(Author)
177 pages, 36 colour & 1 b/w illustrations, 2 tables
A scholarly yet fascinating book about retroviruses and why they are both unusual and influential in evolution.
Media reviews

"Discovering Retroviruses takes the reader on a remarkable historical voyage from the earliest appearance of life on earth to the present day. Students will not find a better way to learn the basic history of molecular biology and retrovirology. Experts will find Skalka's unraveling of how and why retroviruses are 'beacons in the biosphere' to be fresh, compelling, insightful, and thought-provoking. This book showcases Skalka's passion and excitement for science."
– Lynn W. Enquist, Princeton University

"Discovering Retroviruses takes us on an extraordinary journey from the beginnings of life to the transmission of disease. Skalka shows how retroviruses impacted the evolution of species, including our own, and introduces us to the remarkable people who made these discoveries. This is a compelling book."
– Bruce Stillman, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

"This fascinating book aptly anchors retroviruses in groundbreaking discoveries that mark the ascent of biology over the past hundred years. Discovering Retroviruses is elegantly written, with the clarity and insight only a leading scientist in the field can offer."
– Peter Vogt, The Scripps Research Institute

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