Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Origins of Smallpox

Scientific discovery of the molecular biology of smallpox led us to smallpox eradication in the 1970s. However, there is still a great deal we do not know about the virus. Its origin story is just one of those mysterious.

A recent discovery might shed light on that story. In a Lithuanian church, scientists have discovered a mummified corpse of a child from the 17th century that contains a strain of (no longer infectious) smallpox virus.

When comparing the 17th century strain with a modern day strain of smallpox virus housed in government labs, scientists discovered that the strains were extremely similar. Using a genetic sequencing method, scientists estimated that the shared common ancestor of the two virus strains dates back the late 16th century and no further.

The implications of that discovery is that the ancient accounts of smallpox from India, Egypt, and China may not have been smallpox virus at all. Those accounts, communicated through art and oral history may have been referring to a different type of infection altogether. The discovery is an interesting clue in building the history of smallpox virus.

Photo and Story from National Geographic.

Carolyn Oliver

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