From the Cover: On the origin of smallpox: Correlating variola phylogenics with historical smallpox records
Human disease likely attributable to variola virus (VARV), the etiologic agent of smallpox, has been reported in human populations for >2,000 years. VARV is unique among orthopoxviruses in that it is an exclusively human pathogen. Because VARV has a large, slowly evolving DNA genome, we were able to construct a robust phylogeny of VARV by analyzing concatenated single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) from genome sequences of 47 VARV isolates with broad geographic distributions. Our results show two primary VARV clades, which likely diverged from an ancestral African rodent-borne variola-like virus either ≈16,000 or ≈68,000 years before present (YBP), depending on which historical records (East Asian or African) are used to calibrate the molecular clock. One primary clade was represented by the Asian VARV major strains, the more clinically severe form of smallpox, which spread from Asia either 400 or 1,600 YBP. Another primary clade included both alastrim minor, a phenotypically mild smallpox described from the American continents, and isolates from West Africa. This clade diverged from an ancestral VARV either 1,400 or 6,300 YBP, and then further diverged into two subclades at least 800 YBP. All of these analyses indicate that the divergence of alastrim and variola major occurred earlier than previously believed.