We’ve been dealing with measles for at least 2,000 years, genetic analysis suggests

| | January 22, 2020
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Scientists assembled a measles virus genome from the preserved lungs of a girl who died in 1912. Image: Kai Kupferschmidt/Science
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In the 10th century, Persian physician Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi wrote about patients with fever, anxiety and full-body rashes — the first clear medical descriptions of measles. But scientists have never been able to pinpoint when the virus came into being.

Then, evolutionary biologist Sébastien Calvignac-Spencer found a pair of lungs in the basement of the Berlin Museum of Medical History at the ­Charité. They had been removed from a 2-year-old after her 1912 death from complications of measles.

After sequencing the older measles RNA, Calvignac-Spencer and colleagues were able to track the virus to as early as 345 B.C. Their findings haven’t yet been peer reviewed, but they could have implications for how scientists treat long-neglected medical archives.

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If the measles research does spark a reconsideration of other medical specimens, it would fit into a growing trend of using archaeological artifacts and old data to fuel new scientific discoveries.

Researchers have already begun to explore the potential of unleashing artificial intelligence on old data sets, and some are pushing to digitize the once-stagnant back collections of natural history museums.

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