An international team of scientists led by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and the University of Kiel has successfully reconstructed genomes from Stone Age and Medieval European strains of the hepatitis B virus. This unprecedented recovery of ancient virus DNA indicates that hepatitis B was circulating in Europe at least 7,000 years ago. While the ancient virus is similar to its modern counterparts, the strains represent a distinct lineage that has likely gone extinct and is most closely related to chimpanzee and gorilla viruses.
The hepatitis B virus (HBV) is one of the most widespread human pathogens known today, affecting over 250 million people worldwide. However, its origin and evolutionary history remain unclear. Studying the evolution and history of the virus has to date been especially difficult, because until now viral DNA had not been successfully recovered from prehistoric samples. In the present study, which has been accepted for publication in the journal eLife and is due to be published on May 10, 2018, an international team of researchers led by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and the Institute of Clinical Molecular Biology at Kiel University, not only recovered ancient viral DNA from skeletons but also reconstructed the genomes of three strains of HBV.