Speed Reads

the oldest virus

Hepatitis B is really, really old

Respect your elders, they say, for they have decades of wisdom to offer. But researchers recently discovered that the maxim extends to ancient diseases, too.

Scientists have discovered a previously unknown strain of hepatitis B in millennia-old human remains, The Washington Post reported. In a study published in the journal Nature on Wednesday, geneticists were able to isolate the virus in the remains of 25 ancient humans, dating back between 200 and 7,000 years.

From these discoveries, the scientists managed to piece together the DNA of 12 different strains of hepatitis B — including one that is now extinct. Previously, the oldest case of hepatitis B was discovered in a 16th-century Italian mummy, Science reported. But with these new discoveries, hepatitis B is now the oldest virus to have its DNA mapped from the remains of vertebrates.

The researchers of this study used a method of sequencing DNA that is usually used to reconstruct human DNA. But rather than focus on the human data, researchers zeroed in on the non-human DNA sequences they found, The Washington Post explained. This method suggests that it may be possible to reconstruct DNA from viruses at other points in time, helping geneticists track the evolution of diseases just as we track the evolution of other organisms.

As for the now-extinct strain of hepatitis B, there is "absolutely no danger" of a deadly return, said Barbara Mühlemann, the study's lead author. No live virus was discovered in the more than 300 sets of remains that were examined, so the chances of contracting the virus from a skeleton can safely be estimated at zero.

Read more about the study at The Washington Post.