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Horizontal gene transfer from retroviruses to mammals is well documented and extensive, but is rare between unrelated viruses with distinct genome types. Three herpesviruses encode a gene with similarity to a retroviral superantigen gene (sag) of the unrelated mouse mammary tumour virus (MMTV). We uncover ancient retroviral sags in over 20 mammals to reconstruct their shared history with herpesviral sags, revealing that the acquisition is a convergent evolutionary event. A retrovirus circulating in South American primates over 10 million years ago was the source of sag in two monkey herpesviruses, and a different retrovirus was the source of sag in a Peruvian rodent herpesvirus. We further show through a timescaled phylogenetic analysis that a cross-species transmission of monkey herpesviruses occurred after the acquisition of sag. These results reveal that a diverse range of ancient sag-containing retroviruses independently donated sag twice from two separate lineages that are distinct from MMTV.

Original publication




Journal article


Nat Commun

Publication Date





Animals, Antigens, Viral, Aotidae, Chiroptera, Evolution, Molecular, Gene Transfer, Horizontal, Genes, Viral, Herpesviridae, Herpesvirus 2, Saimiriine, Hylobates, Mammary Tumor Virus, Mouse, Mice, Phylogeny, Rats, Retroviridae, Rhadinovirus, Sheep, South America, Superantigens