helpng to understand how the immune system can fight HIV, Western University researchers are studying a prehistoric fish

Descendant of a 400 million year old fish and believed to have been extinct for 70 million years, this preserved Coelacanth is in the Natural History Museum, Vienna, Austria and was caught in 1974, in the Comoros Islands. Genetic studies of the fish show a specific protein could help in our fight against HIV. (Alberto Fernandez Fernandez-wiki commons)

A prehistoric fish and the fight against HIV

It’s an epic battle that’s been waged for millennia: living creatures against invading viruses.

Researchers at the University of Western Ontario have discovered a gene in a 400 million year old fish (coelacanth) that does a great job defending against an earlier form of HIV. They are studying how the protein encoded by this gene, HERC5, works to “disarm” the virus.

Stephen Barr (PhD) is an associate professor at the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry in the department of microbiology and immunology and supervisor of the research at the Barr Lab.


The ancient battle is one in which HERC5 provides its host a defence against viruses. To survive, the viruses must mutate to overcome this defence. In response, HERC5 changes to defend against the newly mutated virus, and so it goes back and forth over generations and millennia.

Lead author Ermela Paparisto, and supervisor Stephen Barr, (Barr Lab- UWO)

The researchers found that this HERC-5 protein in the ancient fish worked particularly well against simian immunodeficiency virus, (SIV), the monkey version that later mutated to cross into humans as HIV.

Although fish would be exposed to their own viruses, it was surprising that the coelacanth gene worked well against SIV a virus they would not be exposed to, although it did not defend against the slightly changed version, HIV.

Chart showing evolution of the HERC gene protein over millions of years (Barr Lab- UWO)

As professor Barr points out, all creatures including humans have the HERC proteins, but some work well against a particular virus and others don’t.

The researchers are now trying to determine how the ancient coelacanth HERC5 works against SIV and how the changes in HIV have allowed it to evade the “defence”.  This is a step towards understanding why human HERC5 is not working against HIV, and also using the fish defence mechanism towards developing drugs to act against HIV, or at least weaken its own defences to allow the body’s immune system to work against the virus.

Two microscopic views- front and side of the HERC gene (Barr Lab-UWO)

The research was published in the Journal of Virology with the rather technical title of “Evolution-guided structural and functional analyses of the HERC family reveals an ancient marine origin and determinants of antiviral activity. (abstract here)

Professor  Barr notes that while this is a highly promising area of research, it is also highly complex and time consuming.  It is difficult to say when this may lead to a breakthrough against HIV, and other viruses.

Funding for the research comes from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, NSERC, and Western University

Categories: Uncategorized

Do you want to report an error or a typo? Click here!

@*@ Comments

Leave a Reply

Note: By submitting your comments, you acknowledge that Radio Canada International has the right to reproduce, broadcast and publicize those comments or any part thereof in any manner whatsoever. Radio Canada International does not endorse any of the views posted. Your comments will be pre-moderated and published if they meet Netiquette guidelines.

When you express your personal opinion in an online forum, you must be as courteous as if you were speaking with someone face-to-face. Insults and personal attacks will not be tolerated. To disagree with an opinion, an idea or an event is one thing, but to show disrespect for other people is quite another. Great minds don’t always think alike—and that’s precisely what makes online dialogue so interesting and valuable.

Netiquette is the set of rules of conduct governing how you should behave when communicating via the Internet. Before you post a message to a blog or forum, it’s important to read and understand these rules. Otherwise, you may be banned from posting.

  1.’s online forums are not anonymous. Users must register, and give their full name and place of residence, which are displayed alongside each of their comments. reserves the right not to publish comments if there is any doubt as to the identity of their author.
  2. Assuming the identity of another person with intent to mislead or cause harm is a serious infraction that may result in the offender being banned.
  3.’s online forums are open to everyone, without regard to age, ethnic origin, religion, gender or sexual orientation.
  4. Comments that are defamatory, hateful, racist, xenophobic, sexist, or that disparage an ethnic origin, religious affiliation or age group will not be published.
  5. In online speak, writing in ALL CAPS is considered yelling, and may be interpreted as aggressive behaviour, which is unpleasant for the people reading. Any message containing one or more words in all caps (except for initialisms and acronyms) will be rejected, as will any message containing one or more words in bold, italic or underlined characters.
  6. Use of vulgar, obscene or objectionable language is prohibited. Forums are public places and your comments could offend some users. People who use inappropriate language will be banned.
  7. Mutual respect is essential among users. Insulting, threatening or harassing another user is prohibited. You can express your disagreement with an idea without attacking anyone.
  8. Exchanging arguments and opposing views is a key component of healthy debate, but it should not turn into a dialogue or private discussion between two users who address each other without regard for the other participants. Messages of this type will not be posted.
  9. Radio Canada International publishes contents in five languages. The language used in the forums has to be the same as the contents we publish or in one of the two official languages, English or French. The usage of other languages, with the exception of some words, is forbidden. Messages that are off-topic will not be published.
  10. Making repetitive posts disrupts the flow of discussions and will not be tolerated.
  11. Adding images or any other type of file to comments is forbidden. Including hyperlinks to other websites is allowed, as long as they comply with netiquette. Radio Canada International  is in no way responsible for the content of such sites, however.
  12. Copying and pasting text written by someone else, even if you credit the author, is unacceptable if that text makes up the majority of your comment.
  13. Posting any type of advertising or call to action, in any form, to Radio Canada International  forums is prohibited.
  14. All comments and other types of content are moderated before publication. Radio Canada International  reserves the right to refuse any comment for publication.
  15. Radio Canada International  reserves the right to close a forum at any time, without notice.
  16. Radio Canada International  reserves the right to amend this code of conduct (netiquette) at any time, without notice.
  17. By participating in its online forums, you allow Radio Canada International to publish your comments on the web for an indefinite time. This also implies that these messages will be indexed by Internet search engines.
  18. Radio Canada International has no obligation to remove your messages from the web if one day you request it. We invite you to carefully consider your comments and the consequences of their posting.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


One comment on “A prehistoric fish and the fight against HIV
  1. Avatar Peter Ashcroft says:

    The ever-changing learning curve.