The ancient genomes of the herpes virus, which commonly causes cold sores and currently infects 3.7 billion people worldwide, have been discovered and sequenced for the first time by an international team of scientists led by the University of Cambridge.
Recent research has shown that the HSV-1 strain behind facial herpes as we know it today evolved around five thousand years ago, following the massive Bronze Age migration and associated population growth from the Eurasian steppes to Europe. contagion
Herpes has a history stretching back millions of years, and strains of the virus have spread from bats to corals. Despite its current prevalence in humans, ancient samples of HSV-1 have been surprisingly difficult to find, scientists say.
Authors of the study published in the journal Science AdvancesThe Neolithic flowering of facial herpes, detected in ancient DNA, may coincide with the emergence of a new cultural practice imported from the East: the romantic and sexual kiss, they say.
“The world has seen COVID-19 mutate at a rapid rate over weeks and months. A virus like herpes evolves over much longer periods of time,” said senior author Dr Charlotte Holdcroft, from Cambridge’s Department of Genetics.
“Herpes of the face hides in its host all its life and is transmitted only through oral contact, so mutations appear slowly over centuries and thousands of years. We need to do more in-depth research to understand how DNA viruses like these evolved,” he said. “Previously, genetic data for herpes go back to 1925.”
The team searched for herpes in the bones of four people spanning a thousand years and managed to isolate viral DNA from the roots of the teeth. Herpes is often triggered by oral infections: at least two of the ancient corpses suffered from gum disease and a third from smoking cigarettes.
The oldest specimen is from an adult male excavated 1,500 years ago in the Late Iron Age region of Russia’s Ural Mountains.
Two other examples were in Cambridge, UK. A woman, 6-7 years old, from an early Anglo-Saxon cemetery located a few kilometers south of the city.th centuries. The second is an adult boy over 14 years oldth century, buried in the grounds of the medieval Cambridge Hospital of Charity (later St. John’s College), suffering from terrible dental abscesses.
The latest example comes from a young adult male excavated in Holland: a flaming clay pipe smoker, probably killed by a French attack on his village on the banks of the Rhine in 1672.
Dr. Meriam Guellil, author of the University of Tartu’s Institute of Genomics, says: “We tested ancient DNA samples from about 3,000 archaeological finds and found only four cases of herpes.”
“By comparing ancient DNA with 20 herpes samplesth century, we were able to analyze the differences and calculate the mutation rate and therefore the chronology of the evolution of the virus,” says co-lead author Lucy van Dorp from the UCL Institute of Genetics.
Co-senior author Dr. Christiana Scheib is a researcher at St. Petersburg University. “Every primate species has a type of herpes, so we think it’s been with us since our species left Africa,” said Johns College, University of Cambridge and University of Tartu Ancient DNA Laboratory head.
“However, something happened about five thousand years ago that allowed one strain of herpes to overtake all the others, possibly linked to kissing.”
Scientists note that the earliest records of kissing date back to the Bronze Age in South Asia, and suggest that the practice — not universal in human culture — may have traveled westward with those who migrated from Eurasia to Europe.
In fact, centuries later, the Roman emperor Tiberius tried to ban kissing at formal events to prevent the spread of the disease, which may have been linked to herpes. However, for most of human history, HSV-1 transmission was “vertical”: the same strain was passed from an infected mother to her newborn.
According to the World Health Organization, two-thirds of the world’s population under the age of 50 now carry HSV-1. For most of us, sometimes lip ulcers are uncomfortable and inconvenient, but in combination with other diseases – sepsis or even the virus like COVID-19, for example, can be fatal. In 2018, two women in the UK died from HSV-1 infection after caesarean section.
“Only genetic patterns spanning hundreds or even thousands of years allow us to understand how DNA viruses like herpes and monkeypox, as well as our own immune systems, adapt in response to each other,” Houldroft said.
The team wants to study this persistent early disease further through time and investigate its infection of early hominins. “Neanderthal herpes is my mountain to climb,” Scheib added.