Israeli Researchers Identify Hepatitis in 16th-century Korean Mummy

Using a molecular method for examining ancient DNA, researchers over were able to replicate entire genetic sequence of virus, and compare it to genetic sequences collected from Westerners over the past 60 years.

Israeli and Korean researchers have succeeded in reconstructing the genetic code of the hepatitis B virus from a sample taken from a 16th-century mummy discovered in South Korea.

The research, by scientists from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Hadassah-University Hospital and the Seoul University Medical School in South Korea, used a sample from the mummy of a child from the Joseon dynasty, whose body and internal organs had been well-preserved. A microscopic examination of a sample taken from the liver was done to locate the presence of the hepatitis B genetic markers.

Using a molecular method for examining ancient DNA, the researchers over the past three years were able to replicate the entire genetic sequence of the virus, and compare it to genetic sequences of the virus collected from Westerners over the past 60 years.

Based on the difference between the sequences and an estimation regarding the pace of the changes the virus had undergone, the researchers determined that the genome of the virus isolated from the mummy represents an ancient ancestor of the hepatitis B virus that developed between 3,000 and 100,000 years ago. The researchers believe that the virus was introduced to South Korea by immigrants from China and Japan.

"The genetic code of the ancient hepatitis B virus will enable us to trace the development of the virus in the human populace, and its migration from Africa to the Far East, and subsequently to other areas in Asia and Australia," explained Prof. Daniel Shouval, director of the Department of Liver Diseases at Hadassah. "The findings will also enable us to determine the pace of the virus' mutation in the future."

The findings are being published this month in Hepatology, the official journal of the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases. Other research participants included Dr. Gila Kahila Bar Gal of the Hebrew University's School of Veterinary Medicine; Dr. Myung Ju-Kim and Dr. Dong Hoon-Shin of South Korea; Prof. Mark Spigelman of the Hebrew University's Department of Parasitology and Dr. Paul Robert Grant from University College London.