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Anti-viral strategies


The evolution of HIV
Manfred Eigen Scientist
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We have studied the AIDS viruses for simian and human viruses and there's one particular result which showed that the sequences we looked at seemed to have two regions of mutation. About 20% of the positions are almost constant. In all viruses we find they are the same, exactly agree completely, and moreover they agree with positions in other retroviruses which have nothing to do with AIDS... there are many retroviruses known nowadays. So that tells us that the evolution of the virus is that of an ordinary virus, it has a long history, coming along with the evolution of the species... in other words they belong to one big family of retroviruses. But that's only 20%. Then we find there are 70% of the positions which have a pretty long substitution time, on average a thousand years. In other words it takes a thousand years to substitute every of these positions, which still means after a thousand years you have a completely different virus because if you substitute all the positions, of course, you can only substitute by those which survive, which are fit enough.

[Q] Ten are left.

Yes. Now, yes, twenty and seventy is ninety, so 10%. And they are hypermutable.

[Q] 10%.

They change with the average time of thirty years, that's almost the incubation time of those diseases. And they are the troublemakers, because they cause the virus to escape the immune response. So the evolution of the virus is pretty well known, we find these... evolution in the 70% among simian HIV-1 and HIV-2. But within the HIV-1 group we have predominantly these recent mutations with a half-time of thirty years and, as I said, with the other viruses there are still 20% agreement. So we know pretty well about evolution, we have done that same for other viruses. Another one which evolves quite rapidly is influenza virus.

[Q] Just to go back, the result out of these calculations means the HIV is approximately how old?

The HIV in the form we find it nowadays has come about within the last thousand years, not longer than that. Before that it belonged to the family of retrovirus which have no symptoms like AIDS or don't cause symptoms like AIDS, which would mean also, it's an important finding. It would mean those viruses come and go, there might be other plagues coming up in the future... of viruses of which we don't know anything nowadays yet, and it might be that the AIDS virus after some time gets harmless again.

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: AIDS, human immune deficiency virus, simian immune deficiency virus, retroviruses, influenza virus

Duration: 3 minutes, 29 seconds

Date story recorded: July 1997

Date story went live: 29 September 2010