People from Eastern Asia have subtle genetic imprints of a pandemic that decimated their ancestors. And it seems to have been a sarbecovirus just as SARS or the virus causing COVID-19.
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Humanity has been fighting illnesses since the dawn of humanity, including global pandemics even when we still could only dream about air travel. The COVID-19 pandemic is often said to be something completely new and that raises a lot of worries and stirs crazy conspiracies. But this is completely wrong.
According to David Enard from the University of Arizona, pathogens are one of the main forces acting on the human genome. It’s actually quite simple if some genes or their variants increase the chances that their carrier survives a serious illness caused by a pathogen they have a much higher chance to be passed on to the next generation. In other words, it’s natural selection.
What is incredible, scientists can see this in genomes. In the DNA sequences of currently living people, they can find which genes were helped by natural selection. It’s like fingerprints left by ancient pathogens in the human genome. And we can use these fingerprints to track the pathogens and viruses are among the most strongly acting factors.
Enard and his team used publicly available data. They analyzed the genomes of 2,504 people coming from 26 different human populations around the globe. When a virus enters a host cell and starts its infection it has to take control over the cellular apparatus to be able to replicate and spread. This makes the virus interact with a number of human proteins. Enard and his team focused on 420 proteins known to come into contact with coronaviruses. For example, the pandemic coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 interacts with 3323 proteins in this set of proteins. The majority of these proteins are needed by the virus to control the cells and some are the host's protection against the virus.
Scientists found that the genes from the set were affected by something in the people coming from Eastern Asia. They figured out that 42 out of the 420 genes were exposed to intense natural selection about 25,000 years ago and ended only 5,000 years ago. Enard and his colleagues are convinced that they tracked an ancient coronavirus that brutally affected people in Eastern Asia.
Joel Wertheim from the University of California, San Diego – who wasn’t part of the research team – welcomes the study as a fascinating probe into the co-evolution between humans and viral infections. But he also adds that we cannot eliminate the possibility that it was a different unknown kind of virus that just happens to interact with the same proteins and genes as coronaviruses do. Nonetheless, the much simpler explanation is that we did track down an ancient and devastating coronavirus pandemic or even pandemics though they did not have the chance to affect the whole world.
The research of Enard’s team is being incredibly confirmed by a recent study that found sarbecoviruses – the subgroup of betacoronaviruses – that include SARS or SARS-CoV-2 first appeared about 23,500 years ago. It is possible that we used two sets of evidence to confirm an ancient pandemic and the birth of a serious foe of humanity.
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