With recent studies proving that almost everyone has a little bit of Neanderthal DNA in them—-up to 5 percent of the human genome— it’s become clear our ancestors not only had some serious hominid ‘hanky panky’ going on, but with it, a potential downside: the spread of sexually transmitted infections, or STIs.
For wherever life goes, germs are soon to follow.
In the case of the most common STI, human papillomaviruses (HPVs), almost everyone hosts a number of infections, with strain HPV16 responsible for most cervical and oral cancers.
This is the largest and most complete Neanderthal skull ever found. It was discovered in 1909, along with several other Neanderthal fossils, in the rock shelter of La Ferrassie in southwestern France. Neanderthals used this shelter thousands of years before the arrival of Homo sapiens in Europe.
Credit: Smithsonian Institution
During the evolution of HPV16, variants A and B/C/D co-diverged with archaic and modern humans, respectively. When populations of modern humans left Africa and had sexual intercourse with Neanderthals and Denisovans, they were infected by the viral variant that had evolved with archaic humans, and this virus thrived and expanded among modern humans
“Oncogenic viruses are very ancient,” said Ignacio Bravo. “The history of humans is also the history of the viruses we carry and we inherit. Our work suggests that some aggressive oncogenic viruses were transmitted by sexual contact from archaic to modern humans.”
They propose that interactions between the host and viral genomes may explain why most humans are exposed to HPVs and cure the infection, while in a few unfortunate cases the infection persists and can lead to cancer. The different degree of archaic ancestry in our genomes could be partly responsible for differential susceptibility to cancer. Since HPVs do not infect bones, current Neanderthal and Denisovan genomes do not contain HPVs. As a next step, the authors hope to trace HPVs sequences in ancient human skin remains as a more direct test of their hypothesis.
Contacts and sources:
Oxford University Press
Citation: Transmission Between Archaic and Modern Human Ancestors During the Evolution of the Oncogenic Human Papillomavirus 16 Molecular Biology and Evolution