Viruses bring new genes to the human genome | University of Tartu

Contacts of UT units

Faculty of Arts and Humanities
Faculty phone: 
+372 737 5341
Faculty address: 
Jakobi 2, rooms 116–121, 51005 Tartu
  • Dean's Office
    Faculty phone: 
    + 372 737 5341
    Faculty address: 
    Jakobi 2, rooms 116–121, 51005 Tartu
  • Institute of History and Archaeology
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5651
    Faculty address: 
    Jakobi 2, 51005 Tartu
  • Institute of Estonian and General Linguistics
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5221
    Faculty address: 
    Jakobi 2, 51005 Tartu
  • Institute of Philosophy and Semiotics
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5314
    Faculty address: 
    Jakobi 2, rooms 309–352, 51005 Tartu
  • Institute of Cultural Research
    Faculty phone: 
    (+372) 737 5223
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 16, 51003 Tartu
  • School of Theology and Religious Studies
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5301
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18–310, 50090 Tartu
  • College of Foreign Languages and Cultures
    Faculty address: 
    Lossi 3, 51003 Tartu
  • Viljandi Culture Academy
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 435 5232
    Faculty address: 
    Posti 1, 71004 Viljandi
Faculty of Social Sciences
Faculty phone: 
+372 737 5957
Faculty address: 
Lossi 36, 51003 Tartu
  • Dean's Office
    Faculty phone: 
    + 372 737 5900
    Faculty address: 
    Lossi 36, 51003 Tartu
  • Institute of Education
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 6440
    Faculty address: 
    Salme 1a–29, 50103 Tartu
  • Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5582
    Faculty address: 
    Lossi 36–301, 51003 Tartu
  • School of Economics and Business Administration
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 6310
    Faculty address: 
    J. Liivi 4, 50409 Tartu
  • Institute of Psychology
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5902
    Faculty address: 
    Näituse 2, 50409 Tartu
  • School of Law
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5390
    Faculty address: 
    Näituse 20–324, 50409 Tartu
  • Institute of Social Studies
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5188
    Faculty address: 
    Lossi 36, 51003 Tartu
  • Narva College
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 740 1900
    Faculty address: 
    Raekoja plats 2, 20307 Narva
  • Pärnu College
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 445 0520
    Faculty address: 
    Ringi 35, 80012 Pärnu
Faculty of Medicine
Faculty phone: 
+372 737 5326
Faculty address: 
Ravila 19, 50411 Tartu
  • Dean's Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5326
    Faculty address: 
    Ravila 19, 50411 Tartu
  • Institute of Biomedicine and Translational Medicine
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 4210
    Faculty address: 
    Biomeedikum, Ravila 19, 50411 Tartu
  • Institute of Pharmacy
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5286
    Faculty address: 
    Nooruse 1, 50411 Tartu
  • Institute of Dentistry
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 731 9856
    Faculty address: 
    Raekoja plats 6, 51003 Tartu
  • Institute of Clinical Medicine
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5323
    Faculty address: 
    L. Puusepa 8, 50406 Tartu
  • Institute of Family Medicine and Public Health
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 4190
    Faculty address: 
    Ravila 19, 50411 Tartu
  • Institute of Sport Sciences and Physiotherapy
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5360
    Faculty address: 
    Jakobi 5–205, 51005 Tartu
Faculty of Science and Technology
Faculty phone: 
+372 737 5820
Faculty address: 
Vanemuise 46–208, 51014 Tartu
  • Dean's Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5820
    Faculty address: 
    Vanemuise 46–208, 51005 Tartu
  • Institute of Computer Science
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5445
    Faculty address: 
    J. Liivi 2, 50409 Tartu
  • Estonian Marine Institute
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 671 8902
    Faculty address: 
    Mäealuse 14, 12618 Tallinn
  • Institute of Physics
    Faculty address: 
    W. Ostwaldi 1, 50411 Tartu
  • Institute of Chemistry
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5261
    Faculty address: 
    Ravila 14a, 50411 Tartu
  • Institute of Mathematics and Statistics
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5860
    Faculty address: 
    J. Liivi 2, 50409 Tartu
  • Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5011
    Faculty address: 
    Riia 23, 23b–134, 51010 Tartu
  • Tartu Observatory
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 4510
    Faculty address: 
    Observatooriumi 1, Tõravere, 61602 Tartumaa
  • Institute of Technology
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 4800
    Faculty address: 
    Nooruse 1, 50411 Tartu
  • Institute of Ecology and Earth Sciences
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5835
    Faculty address: 
    Vanemuise 46, 51003 Tartu
Institutions
  • Library
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5702
    Faculty address: 
    W. Struve 1, 50091 Tartu
  • Youth Academy
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5581
    Faculty address: 
    Uppsala 10, 51003 Tartu
  • Institute of Genomics
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 4000
    Faculty address: 
    Riia 23b, 51010 Tartu
  • Museum
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5674
    Faculty address: 
    Lossi 25, 51003 Tartu
  • University of Tartu Natural History Museum and Botanical Garden
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 6076
    Faculty address: 
    Vanemuise 46, 51003 Tartu
Support Units
  • Administrative Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5606
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18a, 51005 Tartu
  • Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 6339
    Faculty address: 
    Lossi 3, III floor, 51003 Tartu
  • University Office in Tallinn
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 6600
    Faculty address: 
    Teatri väljak 3, 10143 Tallinn
  • Estates Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5137
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18a, 51005 Tartu
  • Finance Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5125
    Faculty address: 
    Jakobi 4, 51005 Tartu
  • Grant Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 6215
    Faculty address: 
    Lossi 3, III floor, 51003 Tartu
  • Information Technology Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 6000, IT-help: +372 737 5500
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18a, 51005 Tartu
  • Human Resources Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5145
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18, rooms 302 and 304, 50090 Tartu
  • Internal Audit Office
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 17–103, 51005 Tartu
  • Marketing and Communication Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5687
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18, rooms 102, 104, 209, 210, 50090 Tartu
  • Office of Academic Affairs
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5620
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18, 50090 Tartu
  • Procurement Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 6632
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18a, 51005 Tartu
  • Rector's Strategy Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5600
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18, 50090 Tartu
  • Student Council
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5400
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18b, 51005 Tartu
  • University of Tartu Press
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5945
    Faculty address: 
    W. Struve 1, 50091 Tartu
Other Units
  • University of Tartu Academic Sports Club
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5371
    Faculty address: 
    Ujula 4, 51008 Tartu
  • Tartu Student Village
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 740 9959
    Faculty address: 
    Narva mnt 25, 51013 Tartu
  • Tartu Students’ Club
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 730 2400
    Faculty address: 
    Kalevi 24, 51010 Tartu
  • Tartu University Hospital
    Faculty address: 
    L. Puusepa 1a, 50406 Tartu
  • University of Tartu Foundation
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5852
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18, 50090 Tartu
  • View all other units

Contacts of UT units

Faculty of Arts and Humanities
Faculty phone: 
+372 737 5341
Faculty address: 
Jakobi 2, rooms 116–121, 51005 Tartu
  • Dean's Office
    Faculty phone: 
    + 372 737 5341
    Faculty address: 
    Jakobi 2, rooms 116–121, 51005 Tartu
  • Institute of History and Archaeology
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5651
    Faculty address: 
    Jakobi 2, 51005 Tartu
  • Institute of Estonian and General Linguistics
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5221
    Faculty address: 
    Jakobi 2, 51005 Tartu
  • Institute of Philosophy and Semiotics
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5314
    Faculty address: 
    Jakobi 2, rooms 309–352, 51005 Tartu
  • Institute of Cultural Research
    Faculty phone: 
    (+372) 737 5223
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 16, 51003 Tartu
  • School of Theology and Religious Studies
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5301
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18–310, 50090 Tartu
  • College of Foreign Languages and Cultures
    Faculty address: 
    Lossi 3, 51003 Tartu
  • Viljandi Culture Academy
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 435 5232
    Faculty address: 
    Posti 1, 71004 Viljandi
Faculty of Social Sciences
Faculty phone: 
+372 737 5957
Faculty address: 
Lossi 36, 51003 Tartu
  • Dean's Office
    Faculty phone: 
    + 372 737 5900
    Faculty address: 
    Lossi 36, 51003 Tartu
  • Institute of Education
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 6440
    Faculty address: 
    Salme 1a–29, 50103 Tartu
  • Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5582
    Faculty address: 
    Lossi 36–301, 51003 Tartu
  • School of Economics and Business Administration
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 6310
    Faculty address: 
    J. Liivi 4, 50409 Tartu
  • Institute of Psychology
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5902
    Faculty address: 
    Näituse 2, 50409 Tartu
  • School of Law
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5390
    Faculty address: 
    Näituse 20–324, 50409 Tartu
  • Institute of Social Studies
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5188
    Faculty address: 
    Lossi 36, 51003 Tartu
  • Narva College
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 740 1900
    Faculty address: 
    Raekoja plats 2, 20307 Narva
  • Pärnu College
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 445 0520
    Faculty address: 
    Ringi 35, 80012 Pärnu
Faculty of Medicine
Faculty phone: 
+372 737 5326
Faculty address: 
Ravila 19, 50411 Tartu
  • Dean's Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5326
    Faculty address: 
    Ravila 19, 50411 Tartu
  • Institute of Biomedicine and Translational Medicine
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 4210
    Faculty address: 
    Biomeedikum, Ravila 19, 50411 Tartu
  • Institute of Pharmacy
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5286
    Faculty address: 
    Nooruse 1, 50411 Tartu
  • Institute of Dentistry
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 731 9856
    Faculty address: 
    Raekoja plats 6, 51003 Tartu
  • Institute of Clinical Medicine
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5323
    Faculty address: 
    L. Puusepa 8, 50406 Tartu
  • Institute of Family Medicine and Public Health
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 4190
    Faculty address: 
    Ravila 19, 50411 Tartu
  • Institute of Sport Sciences and Physiotherapy
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5360
    Faculty address: 
    Jakobi 5–205, 51005 Tartu
Faculty of Science and Technology
Faculty phone: 
+372 737 5820
Faculty address: 
Vanemuise 46–208, 51014 Tartu
  • Dean's Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5820
    Faculty address: 
    Vanemuise 46–208, 51005 Tartu
  • Institute of Computer Science
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5445
    Faculty address: 
    J. Liivi 2, 50409 Tartu
  • Estonian Marine Institute
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 671 8902
    Faculty address: 
    Mäealuse 14, 12618 Tallinn
  • Institute of Physics
    Faculty address: 
    W. Ostwaldi 1, 50411 Tartu
  • Institute of Chemistry
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5261
    Faculty address: 
    Ravila 14a, 50411 Tartu
  • Institute of Mathematics and Statistics
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5860
    Faculty address: 
    J. Liivi 2, 50409 Tartu
  • Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5011
    Faculty address: 
    Riia 23, 23b–134, 51010 Tartu
  • Tartu Observatory
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 4510
    Faculty address: 
    Observatooriumi 1, Tõravere, 61602 Tartumaa
  • Institute of Technology
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 4800
    Faculty address: 
    Nooruse 1, 50411 Tartu
  • Institute of Ecology and Earth Sciences
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5835
    Faculty address: 
    Vanemuise 46, 51003 Tartu
Institutions
  • Library
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5702
    Faculty address: 
    W. Struve 1, 50091 Tartu
  • Youth Academy
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5581
    Faculty address: 
    Uppsala 10, 51003 Tartu
  • Institute of Genomics
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 4000
    Faculty address: 
    Riia 23b, 51010 Tartu
  • Museum
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5674
    Faculty address: 
    Lossi 25, 51003 Tartu
  • University of Tartu Natural History Museum and Botanical Garden
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 6076
    Faculty address: 
    Vanemuise 46, 51003 Tartu
Support Units
  • Administrative Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5606
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18a, 51005 Tartu
  • Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 6339
    Faculty address: 
    Lossi 3, III floor, 51003 Tartu
  • University Office in Tallinn
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 6600
    Faculty address: 
    Teatri väljak 3, 10143 Tallinn
  • Estates Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5137
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18a, 51005 Tartu
  • Finance Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5125
    Faculty address: 
    Jakobi 4, 51005 Tartu
  • Grant Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 6215
    Faculty address: 
    Lossi 3, III floor, 51003 Tartu
  • Information Technology Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 6000, IT-help: +372 737 5500
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18a, 51005 Tartu
  • Human Resources Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5145
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18, rooms 302 and 304, 50090 Tartu
  • Internal Audit Office
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 17–103, 51005 Tartu
  • Marketing and Communication Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5687
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18, rooms 102, 104, 209, 210, 50090 Tartu
  • Office of Academic Affairs
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5620
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18, 50090 Tartu
  • Procurement Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 6632
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18a, 51005 Tartu
  • Rector's Strategy Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5600
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18, 50090 Tartu
  • Student Council
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5400
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18b, 51005 Tartu
  • University of Tartu Press
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5945
    Faculty address: 
    W. Struve 1, 50091 Tartu
Other Units
  • University of Tartu Academic Sports Club
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5371
    Faculty address: 
    Ujula 4, 51008 Tartu
  • Tartu Student Village
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 740 9959
    Faculty address: 
    Narva mnt 25, 51013 Tartu
  • Tartu Students’ Club
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 730 2400
    Faculty address: 
    Kalevi 24, 51010 Tartu
  • Tartu University Hospital
    Faculty address: 
    L. Puusepa 1a, 50406 Tartu
  • University of Tartu Foundation
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5852
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18, 50090 Tartu
  • View all other units

Viruses bring new genes to the human genome

To adapt to new conditions during evolution, organisms change genetically, among other things, and new genes are formed. Viruses, which are grouped under inanimate nature, contribute to the genetic diversity of living organisms.


For a long time, it has been thought that genes form only as a result of the duplication of chromosomes, genome regions or single genes in protein-coding regions. It has been thought to be unlikely in non-coding genomic regions. By now, we have found that most genes are indeed created by duplication, but also in regions that do not code proteins.
In certain organisms, new genes may be formed also by horizontal gene transfer, wherein the genetic material of one species is transferred to an organism of another species. This phenomenon is mostly common in bacteria, and therefore, they have acquired several useful genes over time, some of which have also come from viruses.


It has been long known that bacteriophages, i.e., viruses that infect bacteria, have the ability to take the genes of bacteria from one cell to another, and thus, this ability is also being utilised in the methods of molecular biology. Sometimes the viral gene turns out to be so useful for the bacterium that it becomes an integral part of the bacterial genome. This phenomenon had not been expected to occur in eukaryotic organisms, including humans. The horizontal gene transfer from RNA viruses to eukaryotes had been considered especially unlikely.


Therefore, it was only quite recently discovered that this phenomenon has occurred in mammals on several occasions. “By today, it is clear that the event, which until recently had been thought impossible, has not been that rare after all, and gene transfers from RNA viruses to eukaryotes have taken place at least dozens of times in the last few tens of millions of years. At first glance, the genes transferred from viruses to mammals can have quite unexpected functions – for example, one gene transferred from a virus to humans is very important in the development of the placenta,” explained Aare Abroi, a senior research fellow in virology at the University of Tartu’s Institute of Technology.


It is difficult to study the evolutionary history of viruses because unlike many living organisms, they do not leave geological fossils. The genes transferred from a virus to the host a long time ago are in a way molecular fossils, which help us understand the history of viruses. However, research is complicated by the fact that we need to look back tens or even hundreds of millions of years. The relatively recent virus-to-host gene transfers are easy to identify by comparing pairs of genetic or protein sequences, but due to the fast evolution of viruses, genes with the same precursor may, over time, lose their reliable sequence similarities.


A doctoral student of bioinformatics at the University of Tartu, Heleri Kirsip, and a senior research fellow, Aare Abroi, applied a method for studying viruses, which enables to avoid the deficiencies of current methods. They used the hidden Markov models (HMM), which for a long time have been used mainly in the field of statistics, but for the first time by the scientists from Tartu also for studying viruses. “The primary limitation with previous methods was the inadequate identification of the more distant relatives – upon visual inspection, it is not easy to see how humans and seals could be related, but the relation becomes obvious when comparing their skeletons. The applied method does something similar, i.e., it enables to study a characteristic that is quite stable in time, the so-called protein skeleton, which cannot be seen with a simple visual inspection,” commented Abroi.
By using this novel method, it was discovered that a gene of an RNA virus infecting plants was integrated into the genome of insects between about 70 and 110 million years ago and has been fixed there, but what is more, this new knowledge confirms the effectiveness of the method. Furthermore, the approach described in Kirsip’s and Abroi’s research increases the time-related depth of gene transfer research two to five times and is significantly more precise and sensitive.


The work of the scientists opens up new possibilities for studying gene transfer from a virus to a host and vice versa. The method allows us to study the long-term coexistence and interaction between viruses and hosts, and also more thoroughly explain the evolution of viruses, and assess their age and role in global evolution. According to Abroi, the extent of genetic transfer allows us to conclude that gene transfer is also occurring today. Therefore, the senior research fellow finds that when studying the human genome, especially in personalised medicine, it should also be taken into account that the patient’s genome may contain genetic material from viruses and this may cause certain physiological characteristics.


Viruses are typically thought of as pathogens. However, studying viruses is important as they are the most abundant, genetically diverse and widely spread biological objects on our planet, which is why they play a significant role in the whole biosphere. There are about ten times more bacterial cells in the human organism than human cells, and the number of viral cells is even an order of greater magnitude. That is why it is important to understand the different roles of viruses in the biosphere as well as in the well-being and pathology of a human being. The senior researcher believes that society’s attitude towards viruses is going to change soon:
“About 30 years ago, bacteria were also seen negatively, fearing that they would only cause problems and diseases, and thinking they should be destroyed from everywhere at any cost (a good example are the antibacterial soap campaigns). Today, we know how necessary bacteria are to the human organism in the intestinal tract as well as on the skin, not to mention to the ecosystem. Excessive cleanliness causes several allergies and the lack of the right bacteria causes food intolerances and other problems. The same change in our knowledge and attitude is to be expected with viruses – even though viruses will remain to be parasites, they are not always pathogens but an important part of the ecosystem surrounding us.”

Read more about viruses and their genetics in the article "Protein Structure-Guided Hidden Markov Models (HMMs) as A Powerful Method in the Detection of Ancestral Endogenous Viral Elements" published in Viruses.

Article in Estonian is found in Novaator!

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