Neolithic and medieval virus genomes reveal complex evolution of hepatitis B

Ben Krause-Kyora, Julian Susat, Felix M Key, Denise Kühnert, Esther Bosse, Alexander Immel, Christoph Rinne, Sabin-Christin Kornell, Diego Yepes, Sören Franzenburg, Henrike O Heyne, Thomas Meier, Sandra Lösch, Harald Meller, Susanne Friederich, Nicole Nicklisch, Kurt W Alt, Stefan Schreiber, Andreas Tholey, Alexander Herbig, Almut Nebel, Johannes Krause
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The hepatitis B virus (HBV) is one of the most widespread human pathogens known today, yet its origin and evolutionary history are still unclear and controversial. Here, we report the analysis of three ancient HBV genomes recovered from human skeletons found at three different archaeological sites in Germany. We reconstructed two Neolithic and one medieval HBV genome by de novo assembly from shotgun DNA sequencing data. Additionally, we observed HBV-specific peptides using paleo-proteomics. Our results demonstrated that HBV has circulated in the European population for at least 7000 years. The Neolithic HBV genomes show a high genomic similarity to each other. In a phylogenetic network, they do not group with any human-associated HBV genome and are most closely related to those infecting African non-human primates. The ancient viruses appear to represent distinct lineages that have no close relatives today and possibly went extinct. Our results reveal the great potential of ancient DNA from human skeletons in order to study the long-time evolution of blood borne viruses.