Ebola's Evolutionary Background is Complex

NOVEMBER 11, 2014
Jacquelyn Gray
Ebola’s evolutionary history goes back anywhere from 16 to 23 million years, much more expansive than previously thought, claimed University of Buffalo (UB) researchers, who believe their discovery will highlight viable treatments. 
Part of filovirus family, Ebola was previously believed to only be 10,000 years old. However, their study published in PeerJ found both Ebola and Marburg to have a common ancestor dating back to the Miocene Era.
“Filoviruses are far more ancient than previously thought,” said lead researcher Derek Taylor, PhD, a UB professor of biological sciences. “These things have been interacting with mammals for a long time, several million years.”
Specifically, investigators found VP35, a gene related to Ebola, in the fossils of hamsters and voles. Due to this discovery, this means he rodents gained this genetic material during Miocene Epoch, before they became separate species.
“Given our evidence for orthology of the ebolavirus-like genes, we can provide a minimum estimate of the age of the insert as the age of the common ancestor of hamsters and voles,” the investigators detailed.
While a UB statement claims that their study does not identify the modern-day Ebolavirus’ age, their discovery tying Ebola to Marburg and dating the virus is worthwhile in the search for novel treatments.
“When they first started looking for reservoirs for Ebola, they were crashing through the rainforest, looking at everything — mammals, insects, other organisms,” Taylor said. “The more we know about the evolution of filovirus-host interactions, the more we can learn about who the players might be in the system.”
“Knowledge of the timescale of evolution is a critical part of understanding host-virus interactions,” the writers noted. “Knowledge of divergence times might also affect design of vaccines and programs that identify emerging pathogens.”

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