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Researchers trace HIV's ancestry to wild chimps

Before that, it took seven years of research just to develop the testing methods to genetically trace the primate version of the virus in living wild chimps.

india Updated: May 26, 2006 03:59 IST

Twenty-five years after the first AIDS cases emerged, scientists have confirmed that the HIV virus plaguing humans really did originate in wild chimpanzees, in a corner of Cameroon.

Solving the mystery of HIV's ancestry was dirty work. Scientists employed trackers to plunge through dense jungle and collect the fresh faeces of wild apes -- more than 1,300 samples in all.

Before that, it took seven years of research just to develop the testing methods to genetically trace the primate version of the virus in living wild chimps without hurting the endangered species.

Until now, "no one was able to look. No one had the tools," said Dr Beatrice Hahn of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She led the team of international researchers that reported the success in Friday's edition of the journal Science.

"We're 25 years into this pandemic," Hahn said. "We don't have a cure. We don't have a vaccine. But we know where it came from. At least we can make a check mark on one of those."

Scientists long have known that nonhuman primates carry their own version of the AIDS virus, called SIV or simian immunodeficiency virus. But with one exception, it had been found only in captive chimpanzees, particularly a subspecies that in the wild populates mostly West Africa.

It was not known how prevalent the virus was in chimps in the wild, or how genetically or geographically diverse it was, complicating efforts to pin down the jump from animal to man.