Wild chimpanzees can become ill and die from a simian version of the AIDS virus, according to a paper to be published tomorrow in Nature (Scientific American is part of the Nature Publishing Group). The findings challenge long-held assumptions that chimps, our close relatives, could carry a simian version of HIV but not get sick from it.

The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) found its way into people from a similar virus carried by monkeys called SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus). Researchers studying chimpanzee populations in the Gombe National Park—where Jane Goodall worked—have found that some chimps infected with a certain strain of SIV were indeed contracting a simian version of AIDS. Autopsies of some of the dead chimps revealed similar organ degeneration similar to that found in long-term human AIDS patients.

“Our findings allow us to look at HIV from a new angle, comparing and contrasting chimpanzee and human infections,” lead study author Beatrice Hahn from the University of Alabama told The New York Times.

Although the discovery might be bad news for declining chimpanzee populations, it does promise a better understanding for the disease in both humans and chimpanzees.

It “provides a missing link in the history of [the] HIV pandemic,” Daniel Douek of the National Institutes of Health told The Chicago Tribune. “If we identify the evolutionary adaptations, that opens us therapeutic avenues for HIV disease.”

Image courtesy of Doug88888 via Flickr