Measles virus and rinderpest virus divergence dated to the sixth century BCE

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Science  19 Jun 2020:
Vol. 368, Issue 6497, pp. 1367-1370
DOI: 10.1126/science.aba9411

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Older origins of measles virus

Animal domestication by humans is thought to have given many pathogens an opportunity to invade a new host, and measles is one example of this. However, there is controversy about when measles emerged in humans, because the historical descriptions of measles are relatively recent (late ninth century CE). The controversy has persisted in part because ancient RNA is thought to be a poor target for molecular clock techniques. Düx et al. have overcome the ancient RNA challenge by sequencing a measles virus genome obtained from a museum specimen of the lungs of child who died in 1912 (see the Perspective by Ho and Duchêne). The authors used these and other more recent sequencing data in a Bayesian molecular clock–modeling technique, which showed that measles virus diverged from rinderpest virus in the sixth century BCE, indicating an early origin for measles possibly associated with the beginnings of urbanization.

Science, this issue p. 1367; see also p. 1310


Many infectious diseases are thought to have emerged in humans after the Neolithic revolution. Although it is broadly accepted that this also applies to measles, the exact date of emergence for this disease is controversial. We sequenced the genome of a 1912 measles virus and used selection-aware molecular clock modeling to determine the divergence date of measles virus and rinderpest virus. This divergence date represents the earliest possible date for the establishment of measles in human populations. Our analyses show that the measles virus potentially arose as early as the sixth century BCE, possibly coinciding with the rise of large cities.

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