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Coronavirus Epidemic Broke Out 20,000 Years Ago in East Asia and it Helped Human Genes Evolve

Image credit: Canva.

Image credit: Canva.

The study says that as the ancient east Asian population fought off the coronavirus, their genome underwent changes that possibly led to their body developing the ability to fight off severe diseases from such viruses.

The coronavirus pandemic is not the first time that the world is facing a deadly virus. In 2012, parts of the world faced MERS-CoV or Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus, leaving 858 people dead. In 2002 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) left 800 people dead. In 1918, the world faced the deadly Spanish Flu that spread in parts of Europe, and the United States. Going further back, in 3000 BC, Europe faced the deadly Bubonic plague.

Now, recent research has found that coronavirus made its appearance 20,000 years ago in east Asia helping human genes to evolve. The study published in Current Biology on Thursday has shared the findings. The team of ten international scientists came from University of Adelaide, University of Arizona Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Queensland University of Technology, University of California.

To find their results, the team applied evolutionary analyses to human genomic datasets to recover selection events involving tens of human genes that interact with coronaviruses including the one that we are facing today. Scientists have found that the ancient coronavirus was limited to the population of East Asia which is now China, Japan, Mongolia, North Korea, South Korea, and Taiwan.

The study says that as the ancient east Asian population fought off the coronavirus, their genome underwent changes that possibly led to their body developing the ability to fight off severe diseases from such viruses. Scientists say that in the millions of years of human evolution, positive natural selection has frequently targeted proteins that physically interact with viruses.

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This selection has led to the fixation of gene variants encoding virus-interacting proteins (VIPs) at three times the rate observed for other types of genes. Through their computational analyses of the genomes of more than 2,500 people from 26 populations around the world, the study found signatures of adaptation in 42 different human genes that encode VIPs.

Scientists believe that this new information highlights the promise of evolutionary information to better predict the pandemics of the future. The study also mentioned that the adaptation to ancient viral epidemics in specific human populations does not imply that there is a difference in genetic susceptibility between different human populations. The current pandemic shows that there are various factors that contribute to the spread of the virus.

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first published:June 26, 2021, 12:51 IST