Characterization of the retroviral germline invasions using the koala retrovirus as a model

We use the koala retrovirus to understand how viruses, retroviruses in particular, have shaped a large part of vertebrate genomes, what the consequences of the process are for the host, and identify host defence mechanisms.

Project details
Duration: since 2009
Third-party funded: yes
Involved Department(s): Dept Wildlife Diseases
Leibniz-IZW Project Leader(s): Alex Greenwood (Dept Wildlife Diseases)
Leibniz-IZW Project Team: Gayle McEwen, Saba Mottaghinia, Juan Li (all: Dept Wildlife Diseases)
Consortium Partner(s): Australian Museum, University of Queensland, Museum Victoria, South Australian Museum (all: Australia), University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign (USA)
Current Funding Organisation: German Science Foundation (DFG)
Research Foci:
Understanding traits and evolutionary adaptations
Understanding wildlife health and disturbed homeostasis
Developing theories, methods, and tools

Retroviruses can infect the host germ line and become established as vertically-transmitted endogenous retroviruses (ERVs). In doing so, they “re-write” large parts of the genome of the species they invade. ERVs are ubiquitous in vertebrate lineage, but generally are ancient, degraded and rarely cause disease. The koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) is currently experiencing active germline invasion by koala retrovirus (KoRV). Koalas exhibit extremely high rates of lymphoma and leukaemia.

Our research, the subject to two current DFG funded projects, focuses on the mechanistic details of retroviral invasions, novel ways the host defends itself from such invasions and the consequences they have for host health. We are also investigating the origin of KoRV based on our previous research suggesting related viruses may have been recently or currently are circulating among rodents in Papua New Guinea and infecting additional species beyond koalas.

Selected Publications

Ávila-Arcos MC, Ho SY, Ishida Y, Nikolaidis N, Tsangaras K, Hönig K, Medina R, Rasmussen M, Fordyce SL, Calvignac-Spencer S, Willerslev E, Gilbert MT, Helgen KM, Roca AL, Greenwood AD (2013): One hundred twenty years of koala retrovirus evolution determined from museum skins. Mol Biol Evol. 30(2):299-304.

Greenwood AD, Ishida Y, O'Brien SP, Roca AL, Eiden MV (2017): Transmission,Evolution, and Endogenization: Lessons Learned from Recent Retroviral Invasions. Microbiol Mol Biol Rev. 2017 Dec 13;82(1).

Johnson RN, O'Meally D, Chen Z, Etherington GJ, Ho SYW, Nash WJ, Grueber CE, Cheng Y, Whittington CM, Dennison S, Peel E, Haerty W, O´Neill RJ, Colgan D, Russell TL, Alquezar-Planas DE, Attenbrow V, Bragg JG, Brandies PA, Chong AY, Deakin JE, Di Palma F, Duda Z, Eldridge MDB, Ewart KM, Hogg CJ, Frankham GJ, Georges A, Gillett AK, Govendir M, Greenwood AD, Hayakawa T, Helgen KM, Hobbs M, Holleley CE, Heider TN, Jones EA, King A, Madden D, Graves JAM, Morris KM, Neaves LE, Patel HR, Polkinghorne A, Renfree MB, Robin C, Salinas R, Tsangaras K, Waters PD, Waters SA, Wright B, Wilkins MR, Timms P, Belov K (2018): Adaptation and conservation insights from the koala genome. Nat Genet. 2018 Aug;50(8):1102-1111.

Löber U, Hobbs M, Dayaram A, Tsangaras K, Jones K, Alquezar-Planas DE, Ishida Y, Meers J, Mayer J, Quedenau C, Chen W, Johnson RN, Timms P, Young PR, Roca AL, Greenwood AD (2018): Degradation and remobilization of endogenous retroviruses by recombination during the earliest stages of a germ-line invasion. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2018 Aug 21;115(34):8609-8614.