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BEAST configuration including samples from the Czech national museum from Variola virus genome sequenced from an eighteenth-century museum specimen supports the recent origin of smallpox

posted on 14.08.2020 by Giada Ferrari, Judith Neukamm, Helle T. Baalsrud, Abagail M. Breidenstein, Mark Ravinet, Carina Phillips, Frank Rühli, Abigail Bouwman, Verena J. Schuenemann
Smallpox, caused by the variola virus (VARV), was a highly virulent disease with high mortality rates causing a major threat for global human health until its successful eradication in 1980. Despite previously published historic and modern VARV genomes, its past dissemination and diversity remain debated. To understand the evolutionary history of VARV with respect to historic and modern VARV genetic variation in Europe, we sequenced a VARV genome from a well-described eighteenth-century case from England (specimen P328). In our phylogenetic analysis, the new genome falls between the modern strains and another historic strain from Lithuania, supporting previous claims of larger diversity in early modern Europe compared to the twentieth century. Our analyses also resolve a previous controversy regarding the common ancestor between modern and historic strains by confirming a later date around the seventeenth century. Overall, our results point to the benefit of historic genomes for better resolution of past VARV diversity and highlight the value of such historic genomes from around the world to further understand the evolutionary history of smallpox as well as related diseases.This article is part of the theme issue ‘Insights into health and disease from ancient biomolecules’.