for National Geographic News
The AIDS pandemic in humans originated at least three decades earlier than previously thought, and it may have been triggered by rapid urbanization in west-central Africa during the early 20th century, according to an international team of researchers.
A better understanding of the conditions that helped fuel the pandemic could be key in controlling the disease and preventing future outbreaks of other emerging viruses.
"Rapid urbanization was the turning point that allowed the pandemic to start," said Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona, Tucson, and lead author of the study.
"We as human beings made some changes that took a virus that could not exist on its own and turned it into a successful epidemic," he added.
Birth of AIDS
Until now it was thought that HIV-1 Group M, the strain of HIV that causes the most infections worldwide, originated in 1930 in Cameroon.
Epidemic levels of AIDS and HIV-1 infections started appearing in Leopoldville, Belgian Congo (now Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo), around 1960.
Findings from the new study, however, suggest that the virus most likely started circulating among humans in sub-Saharan Africa sometime between 1884 and 1924.
Worobey and his colleagues made the discovery while analyzing tissue samples collected between 1958 and 1960 from Kinshasa. One of them, acquired in 1960, contained bits of HIV-1 RNA, the virus's genetic material.
The researchers compared the 1960 virus with the oldest known HIV-1 strain, which was obtained in 1959 and evolved independently of the 1960 variant. They found that the 1960 version was significantly different.
Next the researchers constructed an evolutionary family tree of the HIV-1 virus, made up of both the 1959 and 1960 strains along with more than a hundred modern viral sequences.
Using a mathematical model, Worobey and his colleagues discovered that the 1960 strain must have been evolving for at least 40 years to account for the number of differences from the 1959 strain.
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