Paleo-immunology: evidence consistent with insertion of a primordial herpes virus-like element in the origins of acquired immunity

PLoS One. 2009 Jun 3;4(6):e5778. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0005778.


Background: The RAG encoded proteins, RAG-1 and RAG-2 regulate site-specific recombination events in somatic immune B- and T-lymphocytes to generate the acquired immune repertoire. Catalytic activities of the RAG proteins are related to the recombinase functions of a pre-existing mobile DNA element in the DDE recombinase/RNAse H family, sometimes termed the "RAG transposon".

Methodology/principal findings: Novel to this work is the suggestion that the DDE recombinase responsible for the origins of acquired immunity was encoded by a primordial herpes virus, rather than a "RAG transposon." A subsequent "arms race" between immunity to herpes infection and the immune system obscured primary amino acid similarities between herpes and immune system proteins but preserved regulatory, structural and functional similarities between the respective recombinase proteins. In support of this hypothesis, evidence is reviewed from previous published data that a modern herpes virus protein family with properties of a viral recombinase is co-regulated with both RAG-1 and RAG-2 by closely linked cis-acting co-regulatory sequences. Structural and functional similarity is also reviewed between the putative herpes recombinase and both DDE site of the RAG-1 protein and another DDE/RNAse H family nuclease, the Argonaute protein component of RISC (RNA induced silencing complex).

Conclusions/significance: A "co-regulatory" model of the origins of V(D)J recombination and the acquired immune system can account for the observed linked genomic structure of RAG-1 and RAG-2 in non-vertebrate organisms such as the sea urchin that lack an acquired immune system and V(D)J recombination. Initially the regulated expression of a viral recombinase in immune cells may have been positively selected by its ability to stimulate innate immunity to herpes virus infection rather than V(D)J recombination Unlike the "RAG-transposon" hypothesis, the proposed model can be readily tested by comparative functional analysis of herpes virus replication and V(D)J recombination.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • B-Lymphocytes / metabolism
  • Base Sequence
  • Cell Line
  • DNA Transposable Elements
  • DNA-Binding Proteins / metabolism
  • Herpesviridae / genetics
  • Herpesviridae / metabolism*
  • Herpesvirus 4, Human / genetics
  • Homeodomain Proteins / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Immunity*
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Nuclear Proteins / metabolism
  • Paleontology / methods
  • Ribonuclease H / metabolism
  • Sequence Homology, Nucleic Acid
  • Simplexvirus / genetics
  • T-Lymphocytes / metabolism
  • VDJ Recombinases / metabolism


  • DNA Transposable Elements
  • DNA-Binding Proteins
  • Homeodomain Proteins
  • Nuclear Proteins
  • RAG2 protein, human
  • RAG-1 protein
  • VDJ Recombinases
  • Ribonuclease H