BERLIN—On 3 June 1912, a 2-year-old girl at the Charité University Hospital here died of pneumonia following a measles infection. The next day, doctors took out her lungs, fixed them in formalin, and added them to a collection of anatomical specimens started by Rudolf Virchow, the “father of pathology.” There they languished for more than 100 years—until Sebastien Calvignac-Spencer, an evolutionary biologist at the Robert Koch Institute, came across them in the basement of Berlin’s Museum of Medical History.
Calvignac-Spencer and his team took a sample from the lungs, isolated RNA from it, and subsequently pieced together what is the oldest known genome of the measles virus. Its sequence helped them shed light on a much earlier period in measles’ history. In a study posted to the preprint server bioRxiv today, the team concludes that the virus may have entered the human population as early as the fourth century B.C.E., rather than in medieval times, as previous research had suggested.
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