Ancient herpes helps scientists understand virus evolution in modern age

Ancient herpes helps scientists understand virus evolution in modern age

Let’s talk a bit about kissing in the Bronze Age. Looking back 5,000 years at the romantic habits of the ancients is more than some deranged voyeuristic proclivity. There’s science at work here.

About 50% to 80% of U.S. adults carry herpes simplex virus type 1. It’s the version transmitted orally that can cause ulcers or sores in and around the mouth. Thankfully, the virus is dormant in many.

Looking back at how oral herpes evolved in our species can provide important insight about the evolution of other DNA viruses like monkeypox.

That’s why British scientists set out to analyze the ancient genome of herpes.

Herpes is undoubtedly older than humanity, dating back millions of years and infecting species as varied as bats and coral. The virus is found in every primate species.

Researchers screened DNA from the roots of human teeth found at 3,000 archaeological sites and got four herpes hits. The samples were not Bronze Age, the oldest instead dating to 1,500 years ago. But by comparing the ancient with the current virus, scientists calculated a timeline of the contagion’s evolution.

That allowed them to extrapolate that the current oral herpes virus emerged about 5,000 years ago. Investigators think this could have been driven by migration to Europe from the East, with some evidence suggesting those migrants brought the eastern practice of romantic kissing with them, which turbocharged transmission.

It’s possible they didn’t fully recognize that smooching spread those cold sores person to person. Today we know the best defense against sexually transmitted or oral herpes is to avoid contact with someone who has symptoms.

Unfortunately, a kiss isn’t always just a kiss.

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