Hepatitis B Genetic Evolution from Stone Age Uncovered
Understanding the molecular origins of infectious diseases such as hepatitis B can provide valuable insight as to how viral pathogens spread through human populations and the mutations that lead to increased virulence. Now, an international team of scientists led by investigators at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and the University of Kiel has been able to successfully reconstruct the genomes of hepatitis B isolated from Stone Age and Medieval skeletal remains. Findings from the new study—published recently in eLife, in an article entitled “Neolithic and Medieval Virus Genomes Reveal Complex Evolution of Hepatitis B”—indicates that hepatitis B was circulating in Europe at least 7000 years ago.
The hepatitis B virus (HBV) is one of the most widespread human pathogens known today, affecting over 250 million people worldwide. However, its origin and evolutionary history have been unclear. Studying the evolution and history of the virus has to date been especially difficult because until now viral DNA had not been successfully recovered from prehistoric samples. The researchers in the current study not only recovered ancient viral DNA from skeletons but also reconstructed the genomes of three strains of HBV. While the ancient virus is similar to its modern counterparts, the strains represent a distinct lineage that has likely gone extinct and is most closely related to chimpanzee and gorilla viruses.