The oldest known human virus has been found by British scientists on a 4,500-year-old Bronze Age skeleton.
Traces of Hepatitis B (HBV) were found in DNA recovered from a collection of bones from parts of Eurasia, the Daily Mail reported. About 25 of 300 specimens contained evidence of HBV infection, and of those 12 skeletons had enough genetic code to analyze in detail.
“Scientists mostly study modern virus strains and we have mainly been in the dark regarding ancient sequences — until now,” Cambridge University professor and joint study author Dr. Terry Jones said of the findings, the Daily Mail reported. “It was like trying to study evolution without fossils.”
“If we only studied the animals living today it would give us a very inaccurate picture of their evolution. It is the same with viruses,” Jones continued.
Hepatitis B affects an estimated 257 million people worldwide and 887,000 people died from complications such as liver cancer as of 2015, The Washington Post reported. HBV was discovered in the 1960s, and a vaccine was available shortly thereafter.
Some of the strains discovered in the fossilized DNA are still active today, but at least one was extinct, the Post reported. The strands of viral DNA are not transmittable and can’t be passed to a living person.
Several of the strains found were in different geographical locations than current similar strains, the Post reported, which showed that infections may have moved around to different locations.
Scientists plan to use the information gathered in order to catalog possible mutations for the virus and predict how it might mutate in the future.
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