New research published in the peer-reviewed journal Peer J in September 2014 reveals that the roots of the Ebola virus are more ancient than previously thought. The research shows that filoviruses – a family to which Ebola and its similarly lethal relative, Marburg, belong – are at least 16-23 million years old.

Filoviruses likely existed in the Miocene Epoch, and at that time, the evolutionary lines leading to Ebola and Marburg had already diverged, according to the study. It adds to scientists’ developing knowledge about known filoviruses, which experts once believed came into being some 10,000 years ago, coinciding with the rise of agriculture. The new study pushes back the family’s age to the time when great apes arose.

“Filoviruses are far more ancient than previously thought,” says lead researcher Derek Taylor, PhD, a University at Buffalo professor of biological sciences. “These things have been interacting with mammals for a long time,several million years.”

According to the Peer J article, knowing more about Ebola and Marburg’s comparative evolution could “affect design of vaccines and programs that identify emerging pathogens”.

The first Ebola outbreak in humans occurred in 1976, and scientists still know little about the history of the virus. Understanding the virus’ ancient past could aid in disease prevention, Dr Taylor says. He notes that if a researcher were trying to create a single vaccine effective against both Ebola and Marburg, it could be helpful to know that their evolutionary lineages diverged so long ago.

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