Smallpox Virus Found in DNA of Vikings

For a long time, geneticists, archaeologists, and scientists have studied the genetic makeup of historical findings. Most recently, bones and teeth of several people who lived in northern Europe during the Viking age are being studied by a team at the University of Cambridge. The reason: the bones and teeth carry a strain of ancient smallpox viruses.

The Variola virus has been around for millennia, plaguing populations as old as the Egyptians. This is the virus Barbara Mühlemann and her colleagues have traced and are studying. Their findings are pushing the boundaries on what scientists understand about virus evolution.

The group has thus far determined that the ancient smallpox strain was “derived from the same ancestor as the 20th-century virus, but didn’t give rise to it. Instead, they are a now-extinct side branch.” However, this goes against conventional virology theories, which state that  viruses are most deadly when they first jump to humans and evolve to become less deadly,

Antonio Alcamí at the Autonomous University of Madrid, Spain, hypothesizes that the Viking-age virus wasn’t as deadly as the 20th-century virus. Another explanation given by the team was that the smallpox virus jumped from animals to people more than once.

Learn more about Mühlemann’s work in this video:

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