Role of viruses in human evolution

Am J Phys Anthropol. 2003;Suppl 37(Suppl ):14-46. doi: 10.1002/ajpa.10384.


The study of viral molecular genetics has produced a considerable body of research into the sequences and phylogenetic relationships of human and animal viruses. A review of this literature suggests that humans have been afflicted by viruses throughout their evolutionary history, although the number and types have changed. Some viruses show evidence of long-standing intimate relationship and cospeciation with hominids, while others are more recently acquired from other species, including African monkeys and apes while our line was evolving in that continent, and domesticated animals and rodents since the Neolithic. Viral selection for specific resistance polymorphisms is unlikely, but in conjunction with other parasites, viruses have probably contributed to selection pressure maintaining major histocompatibility complex (MHC) diversity and a strong immune response. They may also have played a role in the loss in our lineage of N-glycolylneuraminic acid (Neu5Gc), a cell-surface receptor for many infectious agents. Shared viruses could have affected hominid species diversity both by promoting divergence and by weeding out less resistant host populations, while viruses carried by humans and other animals migrating out of Africa may have contributed to declines in other populations. Endogenous retroviral insertions since the divergence between humans and chimpanzees were capable of directly affecting hominid evolution through changes in gene expression and development.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Genome, Viral
  • History, Ancient
  • Hominidae / genetics
  • Hominidae / microbiology*
  • Humans
  • Molecular Biology
  • Phylogeny
  • Polymorphism, Genetic
  • Primates / genetics
  • Primates / microbiology
  • Selection, Genetic
  • Virus Diseases / genetics
  • Virus Diseases / history
  • Virus Diseases / microbiology
  • Viruses / classification
  • Viruses / genetics*