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The evolution of HIV


Using viruses as models for evolution
Manfred Eigen Scientist
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We can use viruses as models for evolution. In other words we can say well, in early prebiotic phases there has been a sufficiently rich environment in which complexes like the present viruses could reproduce and start evolution. That may be and that has to be shown if it is possible.  But the present viruses we have most certainly are somehow linked to their host, at least they cannot exist without the host. Now, to take the example of the AIDS virus, the HIV. You know that the HIV... the human immune deficiency virus so I look at the human and I compare it with the simian, that means monkey virus... specific virus. Now, in human virus we know at least two sub-types. People try to even to divide it further into sub-types, but there are two essential and very fatal types of viruses, that's the HIV-1 and the HIV-2, and they probably have a different origin. One looks more like having originated in central Africa, the other more in western Africa... the HIV-2... they have many relations, similarities, to the simian viruses.

Now the first question is: when did this virus occur? What is the evolution of the virus? Well, there have been many speculations about it because the virus in the Western world only appeared in the '80s. One thought: well, perhaps it's a new composition or something new. That question meanwhile is entirely clarified. Actually we did ourselves work and we used the method, you were involved in that, which we call statistical geometry. In other words, if you study those sequences which are evolved very far, which means which vary with the high mutation rate, you cannot use the classical methods of constructing trees, you have to... well, we have talked about the sequence space, you have to project the sequences into the sequence space and then look at their correlations among them.  And we have worked out a very potent method by which we can say we can study events which are very far back and distinguish it from events which appeared recently. So it's a more sophisticated technique which we also use for determining the age of the genetic code.

Nobel Prize winning German biophysical chemist, Manfred Eigen (1927-2019), was best known for his work on fast chemical reactions and his development of ways to accurately measure these reactions down to the nearest billionth of a second. He published over 100 papers with topics ranging from hydrogen bridges of nucleic acids to the storage of information in the central nervous system.

Listeners: Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitch

Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitsch is the eldest daughter of the Austrian physicist Klaus Osatitsch, an internationally renowned expert in gas dynamics, and his wife Hedwig Oswatitsch-Klabinus. She was born in the German university town of Göttingen where her father worked at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Aerodynamics under Ludwig Prandtl. After World War II she was educated in Stockholm, Sweden, where her father was then a research scientist and lecturer at the Royal Institute of Technology.

In 1961 Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitsch enrolled in Chemistry at the Technical University of Vienna where she received her PhD in 1969 with a dissertation on "Fast complex reactions of alkali ions with biological membrane carriers". The experimental work for her thesis was carried out at the Max Planck Institute for Physical Chemistry in Göttingen under Manfred Eigen.

From 1971 to the present Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitsch has been working as a research scientist at the Max Planck Institute in Göttingen in the Department of Chemical Kinetics which is headed by Manfred Eigen. Her interest was first focused on an application of relaxation techniques to the study of fast biological reactions. Thereafter, she engaged in theoretical studies on molecular evolution and developed game models for representing the underlying chemical proceses. Together with Manfred Eigen she wrote the widely noted book, "Laws of the Game" (Alfred A. Knopf Inc. 1981 and Princeton University Press, 1993). Her more recent studies were concerned with comparative sequence analysis of nucleic acids in order to find out the age of the genetic code and the time course of the early evolution of life. For the last decade she has been successfully establishing industrial applications in the field of evolutionary biotechnology.

Tags: HIV-1, HIV-2, human immune deficiency virus, simian viruses, statistical geometry, sequence space, AIDS, Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitch

Duration: 2 minutes, 58 seconds

Date story recorded: July 1997

Date story went live: 29 September 2010