Century-Old Lungs May Push Origin of Measles Back 1,500 Years
By Katherine J. Wu, Smithsonianmag.com
Nowadays, it’s hard not to have measles on the mind. Spurred in part by successful anti-vaccination campaigns, global cases of this viral infection reached their highest point in more than a decade during the first six months of 2019. In 2018, outbreaks killed more than 140,000 people worldwide.
But the scourge of measles isn’t just a problem of the present. This deadly disease has been plaguing human populations for centuries—perhaps even millennia. In a paper published last week on the preprint server bioRxiv, a team of researchers suggests the measles virus may have first tangoed with human immune systems as early as 345 B.C., or 1,500 years earlier than previously estimated. Though the findings have yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, they could push the origins of measles further back than ever before, reports Kai Kupferschmidt for Science magazine.
Prior investigations of measles’ evolutionary roots have been stymied by a lack of genetic data. Building such family trees means rewinding the clock—a process that typically requires multiple viral genomes, each isolated from different points in time, to estimate when separate lineages first split apart.