An ancient viral epidemic involving host coronavirus interacting genes more than 20,000 years ago in East Asia

Curr Biol. 2021 Aug 23;31(16):3504-3514.e9. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2021.05.067. Epub 2021 Jun 24.


The current severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) pandemic has emphasized the vulnerability of human populations to novel viral pressures, despite the vast array of epidemiological and biomedical tools now available. Notably, modern human genomes contain evolutionary information tracing back tens of thousands of years, which may help identify the viruses that have impacted our ancestors-pointing to which viruses have future pandemic potential. Here, we apply evolutionary analyses to human genomic datasets to recover selection events involving tens of human genes that interact with coronaviruses, including SARS-CoV-2, that likely started more than 20,000 years ago. These adaptive events were limited to the population ancestral to East Asian populations. Multiple lines of functional evidence support an ancient viral selective pressure, and East Asia is the geographical origin of several modern coronavirus epidemics. An arms race with an ancient coronavirus, or with a different virus that happened to use similar interactions as coronaviruses with human hosts, may thus have taken place in ancestral East Asian populations. By learning more about our ancient viral foes, our study highlights the promise of evolutionary information to better predict the pandemics of the future. Importantly, adaptation to ancient viral epidemics in specific human populations does not necessarily imply any difference in genetic susceptibility between different human populations, and the current evidence points toward an overwhelming impact of socioeconomic factors in the case of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

Keywords: ancient epidemics; coronaviruses; human genomes.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Coronavirus / genetics*
  • Coronavirus Infections / history*
  • Coronavirus Infections / virology
  • Datasets as Topic
  • Evolution, Molecular
  • Far East / epidemiology
  • Gene Frequency
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease
  • Genome, Human / genetics*
  • Genome, Viral / genetics
  • Genome-Wide Association Study
  • History, Ancient
  • Host Microbial Interactions / genetics*
  • Human Genome Project
  • Humans
  • Mutation
  • Pandemics / history*
  • Phylogeny
  • Selection, Genetic