Dr. Kurt Rademaker publishes in Science on the evolution of the hepatitis B virus

Department of Anthropology Assistant Professor Kurt Rademaker recently coauthored a publication in the prestigious journal Science. The article is entitled “Ten millennia of hepatitis B virus evolution.” In this new study, researchers uncover the evolution of the hepatitis B virus since the Early Holocene by analyzing the largest dataset of ancient viral genomes produced to date.

The hepatitis B virus (HBV) is a major health problem worldwide, causing close to one million deaths each year. Recent ancient DNA studies have shown that HBV has been infecting humans for millennia, but its past diversity and dispersal routes remain largely unknown. A new study conducted by a large team of researchers from all around the world provides major insights into the evolutionary history of HBV by examining the virus’ genomes from 137 ancient Eurasians and Native Americans dated to between ~10,500 and ~400 years ago. Their results highlight dissemination routes and shifts in viral diversity that mirror well-known human migrations and demographic events, as well as unexpected patterns and connections to the present.

The oldest known HBV genome in the Americas was identified in an Andean burial dated to 9,000 years ago from Cuncaicha rockshelter in southern Peru. Dr. Rademaker discovered the Cuncaicha site in 2007 and has led investigations of the site since 2010. At 4480 m (14,700 feet) above sea level, Cuncaicha is the highest-elevation ice-age site in the Americas and one of the highest Pleistocene sites in the world.

Cuncaicha contains a well-dated sequence of occupation deposits spanning from 12,300 years ago to present day. This material evidence indicates that men, women, and children lived here episodically for millennia. Beginning in the Early Holocene, about 9000 years ago, some plateau residents were buried in the rockshelter. Collaborative research between Rademaker’s MSU-based Paleo Andes working group and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and University of Tübingen in Germany has revealed insights about early Andean diet, mobility, and adaptations to life at high elevation.

As the oldest HBV case in the Americas, Cuncaicha’s 9,000 year-old genome helped the team determine that the most recent common ancestor of all HBV strains worldwide existed around the end of the Pleistocene. This common ancestor gave rise to one or several lineages that spread across Eurasia and eventually reached Africa and Oceania, and to another lineage that spread into the Americas with early settlers of the western hemisphere.

Read the full article at: https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.abi5658

Abstract: “Hepatitis B virus (HBV) has been infecting humans for millennia and remains a global health problem, but its past diversity and dispersal routes are largely unknown. We generated HBV genomic data from 137 Eurasians and Native Americans dated between ~10,500 and ~400 years ago. We date the most recent common ancestor of all HBV lineages to between ~20,000 and 12,000 years ago, with the virus present in European and South American hunter-gatherers during the early Holocene. After the European Neolithic transition, Mesolithic HBV strains were replaced by a lineage likely disseminated by early farmers that prevailed throughout western Eurasia for ~4000 years, declining around the end of the 2nd millennium BCE. The only remnant of this prehistoric HBV diversity is the rare genotype G, which appears to have reemerged during the HIV pandemic.”