Ancient primate likely spread genital herpes to humans

A team of researchers have discovered evidence of how the first cases of genital herpes spread to early humans.
By Tyler Henderson | Oct 05, 2017
An ancient bipedal hominin known as Paranthropus boisei could be responsible for passing the first case of genital herpes to early human ancestors, a new study published in Virus Evolution reports.

Genital herpes is currently considered a global issue. Over 400 million people across the world have the disease, and that number gets higher each year. The reason it spreads so easily is because it rarely comes with symptoms, and when it does have symptoms -- which typically manifest as genital blisters, body aches, or fever -- they are mild or hard to detect.

Previous research shows the disease first came about between 3 and 4.1 million years ago when African apes infected human ancestors. Though researchers are not sure, they believe the spread came from an intermediate hominin species completely unrelated to humans.

In the new study, a team of international researchers found evidence that suggests Homo habilis -- one of our earliest ancestors -- first contracted genital herpes from ancient chimpanzees by butchering and consuming meat. Habilis then passed the virus to Paranthropus boisei, who then gave it to Homo erectus.

"Our model identifies Paranthropus boisei as the most likely intermediate host of HSV2, while Homo habilis may also have played a role in the initial transmission of HSV2 from the ancestors of chimpanzees to P.boisei," the researchers wrote in the study, Tech Times reports.

The new model shows how the virus jumped across various species that once roamed Africa. The team uncovered that information by looking at changes in topography, climate data, fossil locations, and geography over time.

That, combined with an analysis of both climate data layering and fossil locations, enabled researchers to look at the species that most likely came into contact with both chimpanzees and ancient hominins at different water sources. Theresearch then led them to P. boisei, which would have likely allowed genital herpes virus to jump into our species.

"For these viruses to jump species barriers they need a lucky genetic mutation combined with significant fluid exchange," explained study co-author Charlotte Houldcroft, a virologist from Cambridge's Department of Archaeology, in a statement. "In the case of early hominins, this means through consumption or intercourse - or possibly both. By modelling the available data, from fossil records to viral genetics, we believe that Paranthropus boisei was the species in the right place at the right time to both contract HSV2 from ancestral chimpanzees, and transmit it to our earliest ancestors, probably Homo erectus."

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