The isolation of phylogenetically distinct primate immunodeficiency viruses from at least seven wild-born, captive chimpanzees indicates that viruses closely related to HIV-1 may be endemic in some wild chimpanzee populations. The search for the chimpanzee population or populations harbouring these viruses is therefore on. This paper attempts to answer the question of whether or not such populations of chimpanzees are likely to exist at all, and, if so, where they are likely to be found. We summarize what is known about gene flow in wild populations of chimpanzees, both between major phylogeographical subdivisions of the species, and within these subdivisions. Our analysis indicates that hitherto undocumented reproductively isolated chimpanzee populations may in fact exist. This conclusion is based on the observation that, despite limited geographical sampling and limited numbers of genetic loci, conventional notions of the nature and extent of chimpanzee gene flow have recently been substantially revised. Molecular genetic studies using mitochondrial DNA sequences and hypervariable nuclear microsatellite markers have indicated the existence of heretofore undocumented barriers to chimpanzee gene flow. These studies have identified at least one population of chimpanzees genetically distinct enough to be classified into a new subspecies (Pan troglodytes vellerosus). At the same time, they have called into question the long-accepted genetic distinction between eastern chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii) and western equatorial chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes troglodytes). The same studies have further indicated that gene flow between local populations is more extensive than was previously thought, and follows patterns sometimes inconsistent with those documented through direct behavioural observation. Given the apparently incomplete nature of the current understanding of chimpanzee gene flow in equatorial Africa, it seems reasonable to speculate that a chimpanzee population or populations may exist which both harbour the putative HIV-1 ancestor, and which have remained reproductively isolated from other chimpanzee populations over the time-scale relevant to the evolution of the SIVcpz-HIV-1 complex of viruses. Continued extensive sampling of wild chimpanzee populations, both for their genes and their viruses, should be performed quickly considering the high probability of extinction that many wild chimpanzee populations face today. The history of human-chimpanzee contacts is discussed.
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