Ebola is new, and humans are new, but as far back as 23 million years ago our mammal ancestors fought, and collectively survived, an aggressive attack by archaic filoviruses whose successors would ultimately evolve to become the Ebola Virus. This is huge news, as scientists had previously believed that filoviruses first began to emerge a mere 10,000 years ago.
As SUNY-Buffalo’s Charlotte Hsu explains:
[Lead researcher Derek] Taylor and co-author Jeremy Bruenn, PhD, UB professor of biological sciences, research viral “fossil genes” — chunks of genetic material that animals and other organisms acquire from viruses during infection.
In the new study, the authors report finding remnants of filovirus-like genes in various rodents. One fossil gene, called VP35, appeared in the same spot in the genomes of four different rodent species: two hamsters and two voles. This meant the material was likely acquired in or before the Miocene Epoch, prior to when these rodents evolved into distinct species some 16-23 million years ago.
As we continue to witness the horrifying effects of a deadly virus that has an unjustifiable epidemic head start, we can take a lesson—albeit little comfort—in the fact that we are repeating the experiences of our distant ancestors, and that the Ebola Virus is in many respects doing the same thing. And if we can defeat Ebola by pharmaceutical means, our generation may be the very last to be scarred by this ancient feud.