Measles origin finding could inform COVID-19 research

June 18, 2020

An international group of researchers has tackled the controversial question of when measles first emerged, finding it could be linked to the rise of large cities. The team sequenced the genome of a measles strain from 1912 and looked backwards to assess when the virus likely arose in human populations, dating this at around 6th century BCE.

Alongside the findings published in Science, Australian evolutionary experts from the University of Sydney and University of Melbourne have published a complementary Perspective, proposing that similarly refining research about when COVID-19 and other zoonotic diseases emerged will assist in understanding how such pathogens jump from animals to humans.

University of Sydney Professor Simon Ho, corresponding author of the Science commentary, said the research could help efforts to pinpoint the time of emergence of measles in humans.

"Obtaining genomic data from RNA viruses such as the measles virus, which degrade rapidly in the environment, continues to be extremely challenging," said Professor Ho from the School of Life and Environmental Sciences.

"The sequencing of this measles genome by Ariane Düx, Sébastian Calvignac-Spencer and their colleagues is a profound achievement.

"It's very difficult to pinpoint exactly when and where pathogens such as viruses and bacteria jump into humans. Sometimes these jumps happen and they fizzle out. But sometimes they take hold and spread across the globe.

"For any particular pathogen, the timing of the jump must have occurred between two time points: when it split from its nearest known relative and when we look at the pathogen in humans and trace the lineages back to the common ancestor."

Professor Ho said although the human COVID-19 SARS-CoV-2 virus split from its closest known relative - another coronavirus from a horseshoe bat - about 30 to 40 years ago, the jump to humans most likely happened more recently.

"Had the coronavirus jumped from its animal host to a human much earlier than November or December last year, it probably would have been detected," he said.

Professor Ho, who runs the Molecular Ecology, Evolution and Phylogenetics lab in the Faculty of Science, said just as tracing the emergence of measles strongly suggests it was associated with the rise of large cities thousands of years ago, it is important to also understand more about COVID-19 to protect against and fight the pandemic.

"The chance of a virus jumping between species will generally increase with the amount of contact," said Professor Ho, referring to the fact that as a species, human civilisation is increasingly encroaching into the habitat of wild animals.

"We can see this process happening in zoos, where viruses can jump between species that would not normally be found together in the wild.

He said: "More work needs to be done to understand the diversity of viruses and their distribution in wildlife."
-end-
The Science Perspectives piece, 'Dating the emergence of human pathogens: Ancient genomes can narrow the search for the sources of zoonotic transmissions', is co-authored by Simon Ho at the University of Sydney and Sebastián Duchêne at the University of Melbourne.

DOWNLOAD embargoed copies of the paper and perspectives commentary at this link.

INTERVIEWS

Professor Simon Ho | simon.ho@sydney.edu.au
School of Life and Environmental Sciences, The University of Sydney

MEDIA ENQUIRIES

Vivienne Reiner | vivienne.reiner@sydney.edu.au | +61 447 727 024
Marcus Strom | marcus.strom@sydney.edu.au | + 61 423 982 485

University of Sydney

Related Genome Articles from Brightsurf:

Genome evolution goes digital
Dr. Alan Herbert from InsideOutBio describes ground-breaking research in a paper published online by Royal Society Open Science.

Breakthrough in genome visualization
Kadir Dede and Dr. Enno Ohlebusch at Ulm University in Germany have devised a method for constructing pan-genome subgraphs at different granularities without having to wait hours and days on end for the software to process the entire genome.

Sturgeon genome sequenced
Sturgeons lived on earth already 300 million years ago and yet their external appearance seems to have undergone very little change.

A sea monster's genome
The giant squid is an elusive giant, but its secrets are about to be revealed.

Deciphering the walnut genome
New research could provide a major boost to the state's growing $1.6 billion walnut industry by making it easier to breed walnut trees better equipped to combat the soil-borne pathogens that now plague many of California's 4,800 growers.

Illuminating the genome
Development of a new molecular visualisation method, RNA-guided endonuclease -- in situ labelling (RGEN-ISL) for the CRISPR/Cas9-mediated labelling of genomic sequences in nuclei and chromosomes.

A genome under influence
References form the basis of our comprehension of the world: they enable us to measure the height of our children or the efficiency of a drug.

How a virus destabilizes the genome
New insights into how Kaposi's sarcoma-associated herpesvirus (KSHV) induces genome instability and promotes cell proliferation could lead to the development of novel antiviral therapies for KSHV-associated cancers, according to a study published Sept.

Better genome editing
Reich Group researchers develop a more efficient and precise method of in-cell genome editing.

Unlocking the genome
A team led by Prof. Stein Aerts (VIB-KU Leuven) uncovers how access to relevant DNA regions is orchestrated in epithelial cells.

Read More: Genome News and Genome Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.