Background: Hepatitis E virus (HEV) is an enterically transmitted hepatropic virus. It segregates as four genotypes. All genotypes infect humans while only genotypes 3 and 4 also infect several animal species. It has been suggested that hepatitis E is zoonotic, but no study has analyzed the evolutionary history of HEV. We present here an analysis of the evolutionary history of HEV.
Methods and findings: The times to the most recent common ancestors for all four genotypes of HEV were calculated using BEAST to conduct a Bayesian analysis of HEV. The population dynamics for genotypes 1, 3 and 4 were analyzed using skyline plots. Bayesian analysis showed that the most recent common ancestor for modern HEV existed between 536 and 1344 years ago. The progenitor of HEV appears to have given rise to anthropotropic and enzootic forms of HEV, which evolved into genotypes 1 and 2 and genotypes 3 and 4, respectively. Population dynamics suggest that genotypes 1, 3 and 4 experienced a population expansion during the 20(th) century. Genotype 1 has increased in infected population size ∼30-35 years ago. Genotype 3 and 4 have experienced an increase in population size starting late in the 19(th) century until ca.1940-45, with genotype 3 having undergone additional rapid expansion until ca.1960. The effective population size for both genotype 3 and 4 rapidly declined to pre-expansion levels starting in ca.1990. Genotype 4 was further examined as Chinese and Japanese sequences, which exhibited different population dynamics, suggesting that this genotype experienced different evolutionary history in these two countries.
Conclusions: HEV appears to have evolved through a series of steps, in which the ancestors of HEV may have adapted to a succession of animal hosts leading to humans. Analysis of the population dynamics of HEV suggests a substantial temporal variation in the rate of transmission among HEV genotypes in different geographic regions late in the 20(th) Century.