16th-century Korean mummy reveals unique hepatitis B genetic
12 June 2012
The discovery of a mummified Korean child has enabled the
reconstruction of an ancient hepatitis B virus genetic code. It is also
the oldest full viral genome described in the scientific literature to
The mummy, which had relatively well preserved organs was studied
by an Israeli-South Korean team which conducted a genetic analysis
on a liver biopsy. This revealed a unique hepatitis B virus (HBV)
genotype C2 sequence common in Southeast Asia.
Additional analysis of the ancient HBV genomes may be used as a
model to study the evolution of chronic hepatitis B and help
understand the spread of the virus, possibly from Africa to
East-Asia. It also may shed further light on the migratory pathway
of hepatitis B in the Far East from China and Japan to Korea as well
as to other regions in Asia and Australia where it is a major cause
of cirrhosis and liver cancer.
Carbon 14 tests of the clothing of the mummy suggests that the
boy lived around the 16th century during the Korean Joseon Dynasty.
The viral DNA sequences recovered from the liver biopsy enabled the
scientists to map the entire ancient hepatitis B viral genome.
The 16th century Korean mummy of a child
Using modern-day molecular genetic techniques, the researchers
compared the ancient DNA sequences with contemporary viral genomes,
disclosing distinct differences. The changes in the genetic code are
believed to result from spontaneous mutations and possibly
environmental pressures during the virus evolutionary process. Based
on the observed mutations rates over time, the analysis suggests
that the reconstructed mummy’s hepatitis B virus DNA had its origin
between 3,000 to 100,000 years ago.
The hepatitis B virus is transmitted through the contact with
infected body fluids, eg from carrier mothers to their babies,
through sexual contact and intravenous drug abuse. According to the
World Health Organization, there are over 400 million carriers of
the virus worldwide, predominantly in Africa, China and South Korea,
where up to 15 percent of the population are carriers of the virus.
In recent years, universal immunization of newborns against
hepatitis B in Israel and in South Korea has lead to a massive
decline in the incidence of infection.
The study was conducted by a research team from the Hebrew
University of Jerusalem’s Koret School of Veterinary Medicine, the
Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment; the
Hebrew University’s Faculty of Medicine, the Hadassah Medical
Center’s Liver Unit; Dankook University and Seoul National
University in South Korea.
Kahila Bar-Gal G, Kim MJ, Klein A, Shin DH, Oh CS, Kim JW, Kim
TH, Kim SB, Grant PR, Pappo O, Spigelman M, Shouval D. Tracing
hepatitis B virus to the 16th century in a Korean mummy.
Hepatology. 2012 May 21. doi: 10.1002/hep.25852. [Epub ahead of