Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and the University of Kiel have gathered an international team of scientists to study Stone Age and Medieval European samples. The scientists discovered strains of the hepatitis B virus in the ancient DNA. It means one thing: 7,000 years ago hepatitis B was present in Europe.
The ancient virus is similar to the modern one, but it has some strains that have gone extinct. This virus is more related to the viruses carried by chimpanzees and gorillas.
Today, hepatitis B virus (HBV) is widespread, affecting 250 million people on Earth. But what scientists cannot yet find is how it originated and evolved in time. Studies so far haven’t been able to find much about the history of the virus. Discovering the viral DNA in ancient skeletons, the researchers could reconstruct the genomes of three strains of the virus.
The findings have been published in the journal eLife.
Researchers analyzed samples taken from the teeth of 53 skeletons that have been found after excavations in sites in Germany – the places dated back to Neolithic and Medieval Ages, from 5000 BC to 1200AD.
After screening for ancient pathogens, the researchers found ancient HBV in three individuals – two were from the Neolithic period (7000 and 5000 years ago), and one dated back to the medieval period.
A New Tool to Explore the Evolution of Viral Diseases
The senior author of the study is Johannes Krause. He is the director of the Department of Archaeogenetics at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. Krause explains why this discovery is so important:
“Our results reveal the great potential of ancient DNA from human skeletons to allow us to study the evolution of blood-borne viruses. Previously, there was doubt as to whether we would ever be able to study these diseases directly in the past. We now have a powerful tool to explore the deep evolutionary history of viral diseases.”
The first author of the study is Ben Krause-Kyora (Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Kiel University). He explains their findings:
“Taken together, our results demonstrate that HBV already existed in Europeans 7000 years ago and that its genomic structure closely resembled that of modern hepatitis B viruses, despite the differences observed.”
Furthermore, he explains that the study will continue to help them understand the evolution of the virus:
“More ancient precursors, intermediates and modern strains of both human and non-human primate HBV strains need to be sequenced to disentangle the complex evolution of this virus.”
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