Cold sores have been making people cry for thousands of years, new research has found

DNA preserved in the teeth of people who lived 1,500 years ago has revealed the ancient origins of a strain of the common herpes virus that causes the common cold.

Genomic data show that herpes virus type 1 (HSV-1), which today infects approximately 3.7 billion people worldwide, emerged and proliferated approximately 5,000 years ago. And it must have coincided with a new cultural phenomenon that appeared and spread at the same time: one’s bouse (or bundle).

Charlotte Holdcroft, a geneticist at the University of Cambridge in the UK, said: “The world is watching COVID-19 mutate rapidly over weeks and months. A virus like herpes evolves over much longer timescales.”

“Herpes of the face hides in its host all its life and is transmitted only through oral contact, so mutations occur slowly over centuries and thousands of years. To understand how DNA viruses like these evolve, we need to do in-depth research. Until now, the genetic data of herpes has gone back to 1925. – until the year”.

The herpes family includes several species and has an extensive and long history spanning millions of years. Of the 115 herpesviruses we currently know, only eight can infect humans. Herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1), the most common of these, is associated with the common cold. The strain associated with genital herpes, HSV-2, affects about half a billion people.

Infection with one of these strains is lifelong; There is currently no known cure, but outbreaks can be treated and managed.

How HSV-1 emerged as the dominant human strain has been mysterious and surprisingly difficult to trace. So, a group of researchers decided to carefully study the ancient remains.

As DNA sequencing has become faster and cheaper, archaeologists have assembled libraries of DNA from ancient remains in recent years. From these libraries, researchers looked for traces of HSV-1 in the archaeological record and found very little of it.

“We tested ancient DNA samples from nearly 3,000 archaeological finds and found only four cases of herpes,” said Meriam Guellil, a genomicist at the University of Tartu in Estonia.

These four individuals spanned a thousand-year period. The latest was a young man in the Netherlands, who was probably massacred during a French raid on his village in 1672. His teeth indicate that he was a heavy smoker using a clay pipe.

Two of them are from Cambridge, UK. One was a young adult male buried in the grounds of a late 14th century medieval charity hospital. His teeth showed serious signs of a dangerous dental abscess. The second, an adult woman, lived and died in Cambridgeshire in the 6th and 7th centuries, and her teeth also showed signs of gum disease.

The oldest remains are of an adult male from Russia who lived and died about 1,500 years ago. HSV-1 breaks out when the patient’s mouth becomes infected, so it’s not too surprising to find traces of the virus in people who have gum disease, abscesses, or smoke.

Wearing individual pipe-tobacco teeth. (Barbara Weselker)

With just these four cases, the team was able to sequence the herpes DNA, look at the differences between the four cases, and work out the mutation rate of today’s strain of HSV-1.

This reverses the timeline, suggesting that the type of HSV-1 that is sweeping the world today appeared in the Bronze Age, when humans migrated from the grasslands of Eurasia and into Europe, creating a population boom.

“Every primate species has a type of herpes, so we think our species has had it since they left Africa,” said Christiana Scheib, an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge and the University of Tartu.

“However, something happened about 5,000 years ago that allowed one strain of herpes to overtake all the others, possibly linked to kissing.”

The history of romantic kissing is murky, but previous research has shown that it is not universal among humans. The same research shows that the more socially sophisticated a culture is, the more romantic kissing occurs. As humans migrated, spread, and settled during the Bronze Age, kissing may have become more common.

There is no definitive way to track the dawn of hockey, and predictions remain hypothetical. Given the difficulties in identifying the virus in ancient bones, conclusions regarding the origin of HSV-1 remain open to some revision.

“Our work therefore highlights the need for a broader coverage of modern HSV-1, particularly in regions such as Asia and Africa, with additional observations provided by aDNA samples,” the researchers wrote in their paper.

“Furthermore, ancient genomes, such as those dating back to the Neolithic period, can revise our understanding of the evolutionary history of today’s ubiquitous pathogen and continue to inform the nature of its relationship with its human hosts.”

The study was published Science Advances.


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