Long before the coronavirus, HIV or flu virus, another virus decided to ruin our lives … the hepatitis B virus (HBV), which could have emerged at the same time as humans themselves! This pathogen causes an inflammation of the liver that can cause cirrhosis, even liver cancer, causing about a million deaths a year, including a thousand in France. And according to the largest phylogeographic study ever conducted on this virus, published on October 7, 2021 in Science, It has been ravaging our species for at least 12,000 years, making it the oldest viral infection in humans to date.
TO infection potentially as old as‘Homo sapiens
Researchers at the Max-Planck Institute (Germany) studied 137 hepatitis B genomes found in as many human remains between 400 and 10,000 years old. Thus, they demonstrated that all the strains of this virus known to date come from a parent strain that appeared at least 12,000 years ago, at the end of the Pleistocene, somewhere in Eurasia. Then she would have given birth to two strains that later colonized America and the rest of l’Europe and Asia, before landing in Africa and Oceania. “It is not possible to say for sure when humans were first infected with this virus. The ancestral strain is estimated to have already existed 12,000 to 20,000 ago, but it is possible that it was already infecting humans long before this time, potentially since the beginning of our species! says Arthur Kocher, author of the study. We have already found other viruses of the same family (hepadnavirus) in other vertebrates, but we have not yet found the one that would be the ancestor of HBV ”.
ORevolution reflecting changes in human settlements
Thus, the hepatitis B virus was already present in Europe long before the emergence of agriculture, demonstrating that it could survive in the hunter-gatherer communities that preceded this great technological advance that allowed large sedentary settlements. Because, unlike influenza viruses or coronaviruses, which are highly contagious but cause brief infections, HBV can chronically infect its victims, so it does not need a high population density to survive in an environment .
However, the arrival of agriculture has had an impact on the evolution of this virus, not directly, but due to population replacement that occurred when Anatolian farmers colonized Europe. “It is now well accepted that the rise and expansion of agriculture in Europe was driven by the migration of settlements from this region of Asia Minor (the Asian part of present-day Turkey, editor’s note). Therefore, it is logical that these populations, genetically different from the European hunter-gatherers of the time, also spread the pathogens they carried with them, thus replacing the HBV strains already present in Europe ”., Explain Arthur Kocher.
A similar change was observed later, about 3,000 years ago, when from the fall of various Mediterranean societies of the Bronze Age. “Right now, the genetic diversity of the hepatitis B virus is drastically declining in western Eurasia. We believe this reflects the epidemiological changes observed around 1200 BC. C., when most of the major Bronze Age societies in the eastern Mediterranean collapsed “., reveals Denise Kühnert, director of the study. Showing how closely the evolution of this pathogen is linked to the history of the human species.
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