Not all viruses are bad. In fact, there are some that are quite valuable, especially when it comes to the ability of stem cells to transform.

A certain virus that invaded our ancestors millions of years ago could play a huge role in the creation of pluripotent stem cells.

The discovery of this virus will help researchers to understand better, the use of stem cells in more advanced therapies. This sheds new light on the conversion process of normal, specialized cells to undifferentiated and pluripotent stem cells.

There are two types of stem cells; one of which is known as the embryonic stem cells. These things are pluripotent, which simply means that under the right conditions and circumstances, they can be manipulated to turn into anything- cells, tissues, and even full-sized organs!

According to Guillaume Bourque, a computational biologist at McGill University, for decades, scientists are figuring out what makes stem cells tick, especially as it pertains to their pluripotency. This new discovery could potentially help the researchers find the answers that they seek.

The Virus’ Role

For a virus to thrive, it has to go inside a certain cell and manipulate its machinery to make more copies of itself. A retrovirus is a virus that enters the DNA of the host and it would create copies of themselves from there. One popular example of a retrovirus is HIV, the precursor to AIDS.

There are some rare cases where some retroviruses will affect sex cells. For instance, a retrovirus would get into a sperm or an egg cell and whenever a person who that virus would engage in sexual intercourse, those cells might be transmitted and would then be passed on to the next generation. The resulting virus is then known as endogenous retroviruses which are remnants of past retroviral infections- dating back to our ancestors so many million years ago.

According to Huck-Hui Ng, a molecular biologist at the Genome Institute of Singapore, scientists have long believed that such viruses were junk DNA and that it didn’t have any effect or purpose whatsoever. But, that claim is simply debunked thanks to Ng’s research.

That is because, as Ng pointed out in his study, a particular class of endogenous retrovirus known as a subfamily of H. HERV-H DNA was surprisingly active in human embryonic stem cells, but are not active in other types of human cells.

The researchers also found out that not only are they present in such cells, but they also ensured that the cells would remain in its pluripotent state as well.

In a different study, the researchers implanted some human embryonic stem cells with some bits of the RNA that helped suppress HERV-H activity. The resulting cells actually stopped being like stem cells, but they instead acted much the same way as fibroblasts, which is actually one of the most common cells that are found in the connective tissue of animals.

By understanding the HERV-H even more, future researchers might be able to use it as a means to help transform embryonic stem cells into whatever cell in the body, depending on the need.