New Research: HIV Circulated Among Humans Since 1908

Jim Burroway

October 1st, 2008

According to a new study to appear in tomorrow’s issue of the journal Nature, the HIV virus which causes AIDS has been circulating among people for about 100 years. This article in Nature describes research findings which were first presented last June.

This latest genetic analysis on the HIV virus pushes the estimated origin of AIDS in humans back to between 1884 aqnd 1924, with a more focused estimate at 1908. This is decades earlier than the previous estimate of 1930.

Researchers took advantage of the fact that HIV mutates rapidly to reach this conclusion:

…[T]wo strains from a common ancestor quickly become less and less alike in their genetic material over time. That allows scientists to “run the clock backward” by calculating how long it would take for various strains to become as different as they are observed to be. That would indicate when they both sprang from their most recent common ancestor.

The new work used genetic data from the two old HIV samples plus more than 100 modern samples to create a family tree going back to these samples’ last common ancestor. Researchers got various answers under various approaches for when that ancestor virus appeared, but the 1884-to-1924 bracket is probably the most reliable, Worobey said.

In addition to the modern samples of HIV used in the analysis, researchers also worked with a 1960 sample taken from a woman in what is now present-day Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This 1960 sample is the second-oldest known surviving HIV genetic material. The oldest is from a 1959 blood sample taken from an unknown man in Kinshasa.

Michael Worobey of the University of Arizona noted that the new estimate correlates with the rise of cities in Africa, which he described as “ideal for a virus like HIV” because of the greater opportunities for people to pass the virus on to others. Worobey is also optimistic about the virus’ eventual demise:

“I think the picture that has emerged here, where changes the human population experienced may have opened the door to the spread of HIV, is a good reminder that we can make changes now that could help reverse the epidemic. If HIV has one weak spot, it is that it is a relatively poorly transmitted virus. From better testing and prevention, to wider use of the antiretroviral drug therapy, there are a number of ways to reduce transmission and force this virus back into extinction,” he said.

You can learn more about the history of HIV/AIDS in our 2006 report, Opportunistic Infections — a report which still needs to be updated to reflect this latest research.

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