Ancient origin of hepatitis B viruses revealed by DNA fossils in bird genomes

The hepatitis B virus originally infected birds back when the dinosaurs still roamed the planet, according to a newly published study of genomic bird DNA, a finding that may help improve human health outcomes.

As the old adage goes; "One man's trash is another man's treasure": what has often been described as "junk DNA" has revealed a hidden gem. Not only can we find the ancient ancestor of the human hepatitis B virus nestled in songbird genomes, but according to research published recently by a team of scientists at the University of M√ľnster, this virus is 63 million years older than originally thought, a finding that may help improve human health outcomes.

Hepatitis B virus (HBV) is one of the most common human viral infections in the world. This virus specifically infects the liver cells of many primates (including humans), causing severe flu-like symptoms. Although most people fully recover, roughly 5 percent remain infected throughout their lives; acting as carriers who can infect others whilst also suffering a variety of serious liver diseases, including cancer. In fact, HBV is second only to tobacco amongst known human carcinogens, causing up to eighty percent of all hepatocellular carcinomas worldwide.

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