An Intact Retroviral Gene Conserved in Spiny-Rayed Fishes for over 100 My

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We have identified a retroviral envelope gene with a complete, intact open reading frame (ORF) in 20 species of spiny-rayed fishes (Acanthomorpha). The taxonomic distribution of the gene, “percomORF”, indicates insertion into the ancestral lineage >110 Ma, making it the oldest known conserved gene of viral origin in a vertebrate genome. Underscoring its ancient provenence, percomORF exists as an isolated ORF within the intron of a widely conserved host gene, with no discernible proviral sequence nearby. Despite its remarkable age, percomORF retains canonical features of a retroviral glycoprotein, and tests for selection strongly suggest cooption for a host function. Retroviral envelope genes have been coopted for a role in placentogenesis by numerous lineages of mammals, including eutherians and marsupials, representing a variety of placental structures. Therefore percomORF’s presence within the group Percomorpha—unique among spiny-finned fishes in having evolved placentation and live birth—is especially intriguing.

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