Ebola might be as much as 16 to 23 million years old according to what a new research report is saying. The study has traced the virus’ evolutionary roots and they appear to be much older than what was formerly believed. The family of viruses that contain Ebola, and its equally deadly relative Marburg, are prehistoric, and the two diseases shared a mutual predecessor millions of years ago, stated scientists. Researchers from the University of Buffalo have found that filoviruses, which are the family in which Ebola and Marburg both belong, are at least 16 million years old if not older than previously thought.
The filoviruses are most likely to have already existed during the Miocene Era, and during that period the evolutionary outlines which would lead to viruses such as Ebola were already forming, explains the research report. The illnesses have been infecting various kinds of mammals for many millions of years. Because of that, scientists explained that they now know a little more about Ebola’s evolution and how that might possibly affect any production of vaccines and programs that could bring out developing pathogens.
However, the research does not specifically focus on the present virus known as Ebola. Instead, it looks at how Ebola and Marburg were members of the same family and had a common ancestor. Scientists looked at fossil genes, which are pieces of genetic material that animals obtain after they have viruses inside their bodies during infection. The researchers studied various different rodents. There was a fossil gene that showed up in four different rodents, two hamsters and two voles.
The first Ebola outbreak happened in the human population in 1976, and scientists still do not know much about the history of the virus. There is also very little known about Marburg, which was discovered in humans in 1967 and was thought to have caused the death of an African health worker earlier this month.
It was believed that the genetic material found in the fossils of the animals was even more closely connected to Ebola than Marburg. That meant the two viruses were starting to separate even back during the Miocene Age. That would have been an era when the Earth was all around warmer, as there would have been the starting of the first kelp forests and also wide-spread grasslands showing up all over the globe.
The rodents that the scientists studied had many millions of pairs of genes in their genomes, so the likelihood of some sort of viral gene putting itself inside at the same area in different types of animals at different times in history is very small to none. The filoviridae family is made up of viruses that produce infectious viral elements. Both the Ebola and Marburg viruses are the best known among the group, and they are each very deadly illnesses that cause hemorrhagic fevers in both animals and human beings.
Understanding the virus’ prehistoric past might help in illness prevention. If a scientist was able to produce one single vaccine that ended up working against Ebola and Marburg both, it would help to know that their evolutionary lineages were together at one time in the distant past.
By Kimberly Ruble
Photo by NIAID – Flickr License