Chimpanzee waste could shed light on the origins and spread of HIV.
One-year-old Flick gets a clean bill of health.
Richard Wrangham checks chimpanzee faeces.
Delving into droppings has given AIDS researchers a surprise. Far fewer chimpanzees than they had suspected have SIVcpz, the animal virus most like HIV.
The technique could shed much-needed light on the origins and evolution of the viruses that cause AIDS. "It’s a non-invasive means to study the wild relative of HIV in its natural environment," says Beatrice Hahn, of the University of Alabama in Birmingham, who led the new study1.
Low in the mix
Until more wild animals are tested, scientists should not rush to draw too many conclusions, Hahn cautions. SIVcpz may be more common in chimps than this first faecal and urine survey suggests. Colonies rarely mix and deforestation has restricted their movement. So the virus could well be found in other groups in the future.
Holmes agrees: "There must be populations out there and we just haven’t found them." SIVcpz is a relatively young virus, says Holmes. Having been present in chimps for perhaps less than 100 years, it is unlikely to have died out.
Continued sampling of chimpanzee waste, especially in central West Africa, may pinpoint the few populations that still harbour the ancestor of HIV-1.
The technique could also help to monitor the risk of other infectious diseases emerging from our wild relatives as we continue to encroach on their habitat. "It really does open a door to look for [other] viruses in endangered populations," Holmes says.
TOM CLARKE | © Nature News Service
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