The Atlantic

The Oldest Virus Ever Sequenced Comes From a 7,000-Year-Old Tooth

It seems to belong to an extinct lineage of hepatitis B.
Source: CDC / Dr. Erskine Palmer

Seven thousand years ago, in a valley that is today central Germany, a young man lay down to die. He was 25 or 30, and a farmer most likely. It is not known why he died young. But powerful genetic tools have now pulled out a tantalizing clue: the fragmented DNA of a virus that infected his liver all those millennia ago.

It is the oldest virus ever directly sequenced, opening up a new window onto prehistory. For the past decade or so, ancient human DNA from millennia-old teeth and bones has been . More recently, DNA from ancient bacteria—such as and —in those same teeth and bones has. Viruses were always the next logical step. But their genomes are small and sometimes structured in a way that does not hold up well over time.

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from The Atlantic

The Atlantic4 min read
The Necessity of Toni Morrison
One of my white teachers in high school insisted that Toni Morrison would be confusing to me as a reader. So I approached the author’s work with that notion in mind, and quickly realized how wrong my teacher’s assessments were. Morrison’s prose was l
The Atlantic4 min readPolitics
Amazon Ring Will Survive the Anti-surveillance Backlash
People are far more comfortable with surveillance when they think they’re the only ones watching.
The Atlantic2 min readScience
Should Human Feces Be Regulated Like a Drug?
A fecal-transplant patient has unexpectedly died just as the FDA is deciding the future of the unconventional procedure.