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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
Anna Marie Skalka is Professor Emerita at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia.
"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