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Ebola Virus Might Date Back 16 to 23 Million Years

Oct 27, 2014 11:12 AM EDT

The highly controversial and fear-inducing Ebola virus is reportedly much older than previously thought, dating back 16 to 23 million years, and has interacted with mammals for a long time, new research shows.

And with this deadly virus currently wreaking havoc in West Africa and creeping into the United States, these findings could lead to new vaccines and better treatments, researchers say.

Ebola, as well as its similarly lethal relative, Marburg, belong to a group known as filoviruses. Scientists had long believed that these deadly diseases had only been around for about 10,000 years, coming into existence with the rise of agriculture. But now, this latest study pushes back the family's age to the Miocene Epoch, during which time the great apes arose.

"Filoviruses are far more ancient than previously thought," lead researcher Derek Taylor, from the University at Buffalo, said in a statement. "These things have been interacting with mammals for a long time, several million years."

Researchers do point out that their study doesn't address the age of the modern-day Ebola virus. 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.

They discovered this via analysis of viral "fossil genes" - chunks of genetic material that animals and other organisms acquire from viruses during infection.

Finding one fossil gene in particular, called VP35, in the same spot on the genome of four different rodent species led the team to conclude that the genes were acquired in or before the Miocene Epoch when they evolved into distinct species.

And given that VP35 resembled Ebola more than Marburg told the scientists that the two viruses had begun to diverge back then, 16 to 23 million years ago.

According to Taylor and his colleagues, knowing more about Ebola and Marburg's evolutionary history could "affect design of vaccines and programs that identify emerging pathogens."

The research was published in the journal PeerJ in September.

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