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Curse of the Monkey God?

Blog entry posted by anciendaze, Jul 6, 2012.

To say that religious mythology is not entirely consistent is like observing that the ocean can be rather humid at times. Christians may have Saint James buried in several places, one of which is called Campo Stella, and associated with the miraculous appearance of a star on the field of battle. (Secular historians may wonder if compostella, or burial ground, was retroactively corrupted into Latin Campus Stellae before bouncing forward into Spanish.) Spain has no monopoly on these, Germany can commemorate the ten or eleven thousand virgins of Cologne while also recording the martyrdom of ten or eleven dancing girls at the same location. (Perhaps "tausend" versus "tanzen", or even earlier Germanic or Latin ambiguity. When one chronicler is called "Notke the Stammerer" misunderstanding is especially plausible.)

Still, this pales in comparison with the Hindu mythology associated with Hanuman, the monkey god. Storytellers agree that he was capable of lifting and carrying mountains, but if we were to travel around the subcontinent and inquire which mountains he accidentally dropped, and where, we might lose all confidence in divine competence. We have alternative stories for how he acquired the face of a monkey, who was cursed, who did the cursing, and why. We are not even entirely convinced the curse was a bad thing, (and what good is a curse, if even immortal gods can't depend on it?)

In the modern world the laboratory standby rhesus macaque of south Asia (macaca mulatta) has even given its name to the rh factor in human blood. If you know anything about the fate of monkeys in medical research you should probably avoid watching "Planet of the Apes", (even though monkeys are not apes, they come close enough to be mistaken. The "Barbary Apes" on Gibraltar are really macaques.) Should we be on the lookout for divine retribution?

One possibility goes all the way back to the year retroviruses became respectable, 1970. A retrovirus with D-type morphology was isolated from a mammary tumor of a female rhesus monkey. This is variously described as a carcinoma or adenocarcinoma, because it occurred in a ducted gland. After the usual decade or so of confusion this virus was assigned to the genus of beta retroviruses. This monkey was 7 years old, which means it had been sexually mature for some time, but was not yet aging noticeably. In terms of life cycle this is remarkably similar to a breast cancer tumor appearing in a young adult woman. The virus is not necessarily restricted to monkeys with mammary tumors. There is a high percentage of asymptomatic carriers, and even those with tumors have typically lived long enough to reproduce and pass the virus to another generation. MPMV is not an isolated retrovirus, other related retroviruses continue to turn up in macaques. Either active speciation or spread to new hosts is taking place in the evolutionary present tense.

At this point all official accounts rush to reassure us that the virus is confined to Old World monkeys, and is not found in apes, including humans. It may have a distant relation to a virus in squirrel monkeys (New World). A relationship to murine mammary tumor virus (MMTV) is rather generic -- they belong to the same genus. Of course, MMTV also causes mammary tumors in mice. This makes one suspect that similar viruses may in fact infect humans who develop mammary tumors. There is a long and contentious literature on the subject.

There is also a long literature on human endogenous retroviruses (HERV), and one, which used to be called HERV-K, but is now called HML-2, is of special relevance. It is not found in chimpanzees. Out of 74 identified sequences, 18 were found to be complete proviruses. There is also substantial variation in modern human populations. This is a strong hint that the ancestor virus which inserted these sequences has been active quite recently, in evolutionary terms. We are no longer talking millions of years, but more like thousands.

Hindus would be horrified at the thought of eating a rhesus macaque, or other macaque, even if these had no special relationship to Hanuman. (You can find temples, even in urban settings, overrun by monkeys. Aggressive monkeys can sorely try the principle of ahimsa. When they start wearing black leather jackets it may be time to hire Communists for grounds maintenance.) Their pre-Hindu ancestors were likely less scrupulous. Even today modern Hindus share a continent with other peoples who "will eat anything that moves with its back to the sky." A walk through many traditional East Asian markets can make one very thoughtful about what might show up in stir fry.

We don't have to look for beta retroviruses in distant places or unfamiliar species. What looks like either a single species of virus in two different host species, or two closely related species of virus, has the name Jaagsiekte Sheep RetroVirus or Enzootic Nasal Tumor Virus (JSRV/ENTV). This can be found in either sheep or goats, demonstrating an ability to jump species. Active infections have been demonstrated to transmit via respiratory secretions, though transmission via milk also seems likely, as with other beta retroviruses (MMTV). Like the mouse genome, the sheep genome contains many copies of the corresponding beta retrovirus -- this is both an endogenous and exogenous retrovirus. Finding one does not preclude the other.

One interesting point is that transmission via inhaled particles is easiest when cells of the lungs and/or nasopharangeal region are dividing rapidly. It appears these host cells have effective defenses through hypermutation enzymes, which are not produced during mitosis, when they would interfere with host cell reproduction. Lambs are easily infected, but adult sheep are generally not vulnerable unless they suffer lung damage which requires cell division to effect repair. The cancer resulting from infected cells is classed as an adenocarcinoma of the lungs, matching the most common lung cancer in human nonsmokers. (We don't know what happens to sheep who smoke, but it can't be good or there would be more around.) What is the incidence of asymptomatic carriers? Good question.

Oh, By The Way: humans are known to eat both sheep or goats. Some people I've seen in other countries don't worry much about rigorous inspection. Even in this country I would not have to burn up a tank of gas to find people consuming unpasteurized goat's milk, which might well have played a role in the Lyndonville, NY outbreak of ME/CFS since all the initial victims drank cocoa made with unpasteurized goat milk. There are even novel betaretrovirus sequences in pigs, putting still more potential pathogens on the menu. (At this point I feel compelled to mention that the most recently active retroviruses in pigs appear to be gamma retroviruses, for which we have authoritative pronouncements that humans are not infected.)

Official pronouncements on this subject are consistent: we have looked for such a virus in humans, and it is not present, (though some disturbing anomalies have been found.) There are, however, quite a number of papers on humans harboring sequences resembling those from known beta retroviruses like Murine Mammary Tumor Virus (MMTV) or Mason-Pfizer Monkey Virus (MPMV). You pay your money and take your choice.

Is there a point to this ramble? First, interactions between humans and a monkey species known to carry a beta retrovirus associated with mammary tumors -- and having an immunosuppressive domain -- have been going on long enough to enter ancient mythology in a major, even central, way. (I don't know monkeys really participated in human wars, but I will admit I am not entirely sure they did not.) These monkeys are not confined to the depths of distant jungles. The virus is found in several species, and the susceptible genus was nearly as widespread as humans even before taking up jobs with organ grinders. Macaques naturally ranged all the way from Gibraltar to Japan before humans got into their act.

Secondly, work on a human version of this virus has gone far beyond finding random fragments of nucleic acid and vague signs of reverse transcription. There are antibodies to be found in affected humans, and very interesting work on proviral insertion sites in human chromosomes and even trials of antiviral therapy, which has been widely ignored. (This is considerably different from being refuted.) Those researchers did have an unfair advantage: they were outside control by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
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About the Author

As the name suggests, I am old and dazed. The avatar illustrates my rule of thumb: "Hang on! This ride isn't over."
  1. anciendaze
    Hi Marco,

    This was on my mind because of recent news:

    I did not exhaust the possible origins of the name, or highlight the points in the story acceptable to medieval pilgrims, but not modern scholars. I will only mention the evidence that St. James the Greater's remains were "translated" to a region of the Roman world called "Finis Terrae", meaning land's end, and let others dig up the factual bones.

    While I greatly enjoyed Umberto Eco's "Name of the Rose", I confess I closed "Foucault's Pendulum" before finishing, an unusual occurrence. I felt some danger of succumbing to clinical paranoia.
  2. Marco
    Very entertaining as always anciendaze

    The route de compostelle runs through my neck of the woods and it was interesting to hear about the possible origins of the name.

    All the pilgrims have to do is follow the sign of the scallop and they'll arrive safely at their destination.

    Taking care of course not to be waylaid by this ubiquitous fella otherwise you could end up anywhere :


    If you haven't read it I highly recommend Foucault's Pendululm by Umberto Eco. A highly entertaining romp around symbols, metaphors and their myriad interpretations (not to mention the strong impulse for believers to believe).
  3. anciendaze
    Here comes a personal digression concerning unusual thought habits of artillery observers which was too much to post in-line. (Yes, there is a point to this.) Should an explosion take place way off to the left (mice), and others to the right (sheep and goats), followed by some quite close (macaques), any experienced observer will feel an atavistic urge to rapidly burrow out of sight. These occurrences could be due to chance, but arguments of that nature will have no effect on the observer. They might be due to activities of people on the same side, but this won't be nearly as reassuring as the naive imagine. You don't get to be experienced without developing a healthy respect for mistakes, especially mistaken identity. The possibility you have been bracketed by unknown hostiles or befuddled allies is simply one of those ideas you never dismiss lightly. A large part of the time people engaged in these activities simply don't know what is going on. Even a brief stint as an instructor in this art will leave you with the firm conviction everyone -- students, instructors and gunners on your side included -- is out to kill you. (Hmmm, I left out personnel at ammo dumps and fuses which detonate in heavy rain.) Knowledge that other people have suffered unexplained calamities resembling those which got your attention (in mice, sheep, goats and macaques) will confirm you in this frame of mind. I confess to having this habit of thought myself, it once played a role in personal survival.