QUEENSLAND, Australia — A coronavirus pandemic broke out in East Asia 20,000 years ago, a new gene study reveals. Scientists say that many Asian people can trace their ancestry back to people who survived a Covid outbreak aeons ago.
Roughly 20,000 years ago, the world was thawing from an Ice Age. Many of the ice sheets that buried much of Asia, Europe and North America were melting from rising Co2 levels. The warming planet was enough for ancient humans to expand and evolve, with the first pottery being made in China in this period. Researchers discovered that examining the genomes of descendants can show information tracing back tens of thousands of years.
In the study, the researchers used data from the 1000 Genomes Project, which is the largest public catalogue of common human genetic variation. They looked at the changes in the human genes coding for SARS-CoV-2-interacting proteins. They then synthesized both human and SARS-CoV-2 proteins, without using living cells, and showed that these interacted directly, specifically pointing to the conserved nature of the mechanism coronaviruses use for cell invasion.
“The modern human genome contains evolutionary information tracing back tens of thousands of years, like studying the rings of a tree gives us insight into the conditions it experienced as it grew,” explains study co-author Kirill Alexandrov, a professor at the Queensland University of Technology, in a statement. “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.”
People from China, Japan, Mongolia, North Korea, South Korea, and Taiwan could all be descendants of those who lived through this ancient coronavirus outbreak.
“In the course of the epidemic, selection favored variants of pathogenesis-related human genes with adaptive changes presumably leading to less severe disease,” says Alexandrov. “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.”
Alexandrov says that the findings show how health conditions even from thousands of years ago can provide scientists with insight into similar problems today.
“Another important offshoot of this research is the ability to identify viruses that have caused epidemic in the distant past and may do so in the future,” he says. “This, in principle, enables us to compile a list of potentially dangerous viruses and then develop diagnostics, vaccines and drugs for the event of their return.”
The study is published in the journal Current Biology.
SWNS writer Joe Morgan contributed to this report.