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Ebola found to be at least 16 to 23 million years old, according to study

Written By Easy Life on Sunday, October 26, 2014 | 10/26/2014 09:04:00 PM

LONDON: A new study has re-written Ebola's family history. 

Ebola's evolutionary roots more ancient than previously thought, the study has found. 

The family of viruses housing Ebola and Marburg is ancient, and the two viruses last shared a common ancestor millions of years ago, scientists say. 

The research shows that filoviruses — a family to which Ebola and its similarly lethal relative, Marburg, belong — are at least 16-23 million years old. 

Filo viruses likely existed in the Miocene Epoch, and at that time, the evolutionary lines leading to Ebola and Marburg had already diverged, the study concludes. 

"Filoviruses are far more ancient than previously thought," says lead researcher Derek Taylor, , a University at Buffalo professor of biological sciences. "These things have been interacting with mammals for a long time, several million years." 

Scientists say knowing more about Ebola and Marburg's comparative evolution could "affect design of vaccines and programs that identify emerging pathogens." 

The research does not address the age of the modern-day Ebolavirus. 

Instead, it shows that Ebola and Marburg are each members of ancient evolutionary lines, and that these two viruses last shared a common ancestor sometime prior to 16-23 million years ago. 

Taylor and co-author Jeremy Bruenn, UB professor of biological sciences, research viral "fossil genes" — chunks of genetic material that animals and other organisms acquire from viruses during infection. 

In the new study, the authors report finding remnants of filovirus-like genes in various rodents. One fossil gene, called VP35, appeared in the same spot in the genomes of four different rodent species: two hamsters and two voles. 

This meant the material was likely acquired in or before the Miocene Epoch, prior to when these rodents evolved into distinct species some 16-23 million years ago. 

The first Ebola outbreak in humans occurred in 1976, and scientists still know little about the virus' history. The same dearth of information applies to Marburg, which was recognized in humans in 1967 and implicated in the death of a Ugandan health worker this month. 

Understanding the virus' ancient past could aid in disease prevention, Taylor says. He notes that if a researcher were trying to create a single vaccine effective against both Ebola and Marburg, it could be helpful to know that their evolutionary lineages diverged so long ago.

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