Humans share many genes with apes – but that’s not proof we evolved from them. After all, human beings also share 50 per cent of our genes with bananas, and 79 per cent with ducks – but no one believes we are descended from duck-billed bananas.
However, one ‘proof’ often cited for human evolution is the Endogenous Retroviruses (ERVs) found in both apes and ourselves. An ERV is a piece of DNA found inside an organism’s genome that looks like a retrovirus. These are said to be parasitic junk sequences that came from viral DNA. The likelihood that apes and humans were infected with this DNA in the same place in our genomes separately is so low that it must be something that happened in our common ancestor – proving we evolved.
But what if these ERVs actually have a function and are not ‘junk’ after all? If so, then shared ERVs could be evidence of common design not common descent. They should certainly no longer be touted as the ‘smoking gun’ that proves ape-to-human evolution.
A 2013 paper in PLOS Genetics* reported that up to 80 per cent of human ERVs are transcribed non-randomly, strongly suggesting a functional role. It said that “thousands of ERV-derived sequences” are “associated with cell type-specific expression of neighbouring genes”.
In fact, we’re gradually finding more and more examples of viral sequences that have some kind of function in human cells. For example, many ERV sequences play a role in human gene regulation.
So if ERVs are functional, they are there for a reason, and so are highly unlikely to have come from retroviruses – which if true neutralises the whole ERV argument.
And if thousands of ERVs really were inserted by retroviruses, the body’s own defence mechanism (apoptosis) should have destroyed most of them long ago. The fact that we still have so many ERVs suggests they were not caused by retroviruses.
* Pierre-Étienne Jacques, Justin Jeyakani, Guillaume Bourque, ‘The Majority of Primate-Specific Regulatory Sequences Are Derived from Transposable Elements’, PLOS Genetics, 9 May 2013.
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