Ancient Coronavirus Pandemic Evidence Found in Asia
Studying the human genome gives us a fascinating glimpse into the evolution of human DNA over time. Modern technology permits scientists to discover and understand certain diseases that potentially occurred thousands of years ago, all with the help of genome evidence. A new study by an international team of researchers from the University of Adelaide and the University of Arizona of 2,500 modern humans from 26 worldwide populations revealed that an ancient coronavirus outbreak struck East Asia some 20,000 years ago!
The DNA double helix molecule is the genetic blueprint for life. The recent study on the ancient coronavirus pandemic in East Asia drew on DNA and gene evidence. (nobeastsofierce / Adobe Stock)
Using Ancient Coronavirus Evidence To Fight Future Viruses
East Asia’s ancient coronavirus pandemic left traces in the genetic makeup of the people from this region, as per the open-access study published in Scientific Biology. The genes among the DNA of this population subset of East Asian ancestry, by virtue of natural selection, were better adapted to respond to the “new” (2020) coronavirus and its variants, which would have lessened the severity of the virus on these people.
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They noted that, “…modern human genomes contain evolutionary information tracing back tens of thousands of years, which may help identify the viruses that have impacted our ancestors—pointing to which viruses have future pandemic potential.”
Despite all the advanced biological and medical tools at our disposal, the current coronavirus outbreak has claimed almost 4 million lives and counting. So, more information like this from the past can help contain the impact of future viruses of this type.
Viruses are microscopic parasites, smaller than even bacteria, that are incapable of surviving on their own. They lack the capacity to live and thrive outside of a host body, and hence rely on making copies of themselves once they enter the host. Upon entering, they attach themselves to host cell surfaces, make copies, and usurp the energy of host cells by releasing their own genomes and disrupting or hijacking various parts of the cell machinery, forcing the cell to produce viral proteins.
Dr. Yassine Souilmi, from the University of Adelaide's School of Biological Sciences and the lead author on this study, agrees and adds, “Viruses are very simple creatures with the sole objective to make more copies of themselves. Their simple biological structure renders them incapable of reproducing by themselves so they must invade the cells of other organisms and hijack their molecular machinery to exist."
In the last two decades, there have been three severe coronavirus epidemics, as per Science Daily. The first was SARS-CoV, which led to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome which originated in China in 2002 and killed more than 800 people. The second was MERS-CoV, which led to the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, which killed over 850 people. The third epidemic and by far the worst is the current SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19), which has killed almost 4 million people in less than two years.
Professor Kirill Alexandrov from the CSIRO-QUT Synthetic Biology Alliance and QUT’s Centre for Genomics and Personalized Health, was part of a team of researchers from the University of Arizona, the University of California San Francisco, and the University of Adelaide who have published their findings about the ancient coronavirus “pandemic” in East Asia, in the journal Current Biology. (QUT)
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In 2012, a detailed list was published in an open-access form in the publication Nature, which revealed a sequence of 1092 genomes. Researchers used data from this list to assess human gene coding variations and changes, to study the response and behavior of SARS-CoV-2 proteins. According to the Daily Mail, the team synthesized both human and SARS-CoV-2 proteins, showing a direct interaction that highlighted the nature of the mechanism that coronaviruses use for cell invasion.
"Computational scientists on the team applied evolutionary analysis to the human genomic dataset to discover evidence that the ancestors of East Asian people experienced an epidemic of a coronavirus-induced disease similar to COVID-19. In the course of the epidemic, selection favored variants of pathogenesis-related human genes with adaptive changes presumably leading to a less severe disease," said Professor Kirill Alexandrov from CSIRO-QUT Synthetic Biology Alliance and QUT's Centre for Genomics and Personalized Health, a co-author on the study.
The larger purpose of this project and the research it will hopefully produce is twofold. First, to collect as much data as possible, and to compile lists of a wide variety of dangerous viruses that have the potential for uncontrolled spread (unlike the current COVID-19 pandemic). Primarily, this helps in identifying “pandemic” viruses both in the distant past and in the future. This data will then be used to fund and encourage research and analysis in a bid to develop diagnostics, vaccines, and other drugs.
Secondly, old viruses, like the ancient coronavirus evidence found in the recent study, can help modern humans better understand genome sequences and DNA responses in relation to how they adapted or changed in response to past viruses.
“The modern human genome contains evolutionary information tracing back tens of thousands of years. By developing greater insights into the ancient viral foes, we gain understanding of how genomes of different human populations adapted to the viruses that have been recently recognized as a significant driver of human evolution,” concludes Professor Alexandrov.
Top image: The coronavirus up close. Evidence of an ancient coronavirus outbreak, from 20,000 years ago, has been found in the DNA of ancient East Asia populations, according to the latest study. Source: peterschreiber.media / Adobe Stock
By Rudra Bhushan
EurekAlert. 2021. Decoding humans’ survival from coronaviruses. Available at: https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2021-06/uoa-dhs062421.php.
Randall, I. 2021. Another huge coronavirus epidemic hit humanity more than 20,000 years ago, DNA analysis reveals. Available at: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-9724731/Health-coronavirus-epidemic-hit-humanity-20-000-years-ago-DNA-analysis-reveals.html.
Souilmi, Y., Alexandrov K., et al. 2021. An ancient viral epidemic involving host coronavirus interacting genes more than 20,000 years ago in East Asia. Current Biology. Available at: https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(21)00794-6?_returnURL=https%3A%2F%2Flinkinghub.elsevier.com%2Fretrieve%2Fpii%2FS0960982221007946%3Fshowall%3Dtrue.