Neurons Use Viruses to Share Information and Learn

When genes are activated, the instructions encoded within their DNA are first transcribed into a related molecule called RNA. Shepherd’s colleague Elissa Pastuzyn showed that the Arc shells can enclose RNA and move it from one neuron to another. And that’s basically what retroviruses do—they use protein shells to protect their own RNA as it moves between cells in a host.

So our neurons use a repurposed viral gene to transmit genetic information between each other in an oddly virus-like way that, until now, we had no idea about. “Why the hell do neurons want to do this?” Shepherd says. “We don’t know.” One wild possibility is that neurons are using Arc (and its cargo) to influence each other. One cell could use Arc to deliver RNA that changes the genes that are activated in a neighboring cell. Again, “that’s very similar to what a virus does—changing the state of a cell to make its own genes,” says Shepherd.


Scientists have in recent years discovered several ways that animals have used the properties of viral genes to their evolutionary advantage. Gag moves genetic information between cells, so it’s perfect as the basis of a communication system. Viruses use another gene called env to merge with host cells and avoid the immune system. Those same properties are vital for the placenta—a mammalian organ that unites the tissues of mothers and babies. And sure enough, a gene called syncytin, which is essential for the creation of placentas, actually descends from env. Viruses aren’t just responsible for our ability to learn and remember, but for our very birth.


Folksonomies: dna neurons virus microbiology

/health and fitness/disease (0.443798)
/pets/dogs (0.361546)
/family and parenting/babies and toddlers (0.331505)

colleague Elissa Pastuzyn (0.927791 (:0.000000)), oddly virus-like way (0.867430 (:0.000000)), genetic information (0.776708 (:0.000000)), placenta—a mammalian organ (0.721070 (:0.000000)), neurons (0.655572 (:0.000000)), RNA (0.593128 (:0.000000)), Arc shells (0.566729 (:0.000000)), genes (0.541752 (:0.000000)), viral genes (0.527287 (:0.000000)), viral gene (0.507126 (:0.000000)), protein shells (0.500724 (:0.000000)), Share Information (0.497782 (:0.000000)), wild possibility (0.478799 (:0.000000)), evolutionary advantage (0.450062 (:0.000000)), host cells (0.439834 (:0.000000)), Shepherd (0.378039 (:0.000000)), Viruses (0.373075 (:0.000000)), env (0.221807 (:0.000000)), properties (0.219767 (:0.000000)), neuron (0.200796 (:0.000000))

Shepherd:Person (0.782320 (:0.000000)), Arc:Company (0.497821 (:0.000000)), Elissa Pastuzyn:Person (0.438908 (:0.000000))

DNA (0.965707): dbpedia_resource
Genetics (0.766176): dbpedia_resource
Bacteria (0.759971): dbpedia_resource
Gene (0.747015): dbpedia_resource
Organism (0.746252): dbpedia_resource
Protein (0.663571): dbpedia_resource
Evolution (0.624494): dbpedia_resource
Virus (0.569874): dbpedia_resource

 Brain Cells Share Information Using a Gene that Came From Viruses
Electronic/World Wide Web>Internet Article:  Yong, Ed (01/12/2018), Brain Cells Share Information Using a Gene that Came From Viruses, Retrieved on 2018-01-12
  • Source Material []
  • Folksonomies: biology