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Viral Genomes Back in Time

Researchers have reconstructed the genome of HIV that they isolated from a lymph node sample taken from a 38-year-old man in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1966 — 17 years before the virus was identified, the Atlantic reports.

The international team of researchers led by the University of Arizona's Michael Worobey screened 1,652 FFPE tissue samples collected in Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, between 1959 and 1967 using a multiplex RT-PCR assay to identify samples harboring HIV. As they report in a preprint posted to bioRxiv, Worobey and his team were able to tease out a near-complete HIV genome from a sample dating back to 1966, making it the oldest HIV genome.

This 1966 HIV genome, they report, belongs to a sister lineage of subtype C — a viral subtype common in southern Africa — that diverged from it some 20 to 30 years prior.

As the Atlantic notes, HIV researchers had previously predicted that HIV arose around 1920, likely in Cameroon, and the analysis of this new genome largely confirmed those earlier findings, placing the origin of HIV a touch earlier, between 1896 and 1905.

"There's no other way to test these important inferences about the origins of one of the most important infectious diseases to ever hit humans," Worobey tells the Atlantic.