Cookies on this website

We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. If you click 'Accept all cookies' we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies and you won't see this message again. If you click 'Reject all non-essential cookies' only necessary cookies providing core functionality such as security, network management, and accessibility will be enabled. Click 'Find out more' for information on how to change your cookie settings.

An international team of scientists led by geneticists and disease biologists from the University of Oxford and Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (LMU) have used ancient DNA to trace the evolution of Marek's Disease Virus (MDV). This global pathogen causes fatal infections in unvaccinated chickens and costs the poultry industry over $1 billion per year. The findings, published today in the journal Science, show how viruses evolve to become more virulent and could lead to the development of better ways to treat viral infections.

3D DNA chain in grey colours and Marek's Disease virus around © BlackJack3D, Getty Images.

The team, which includes archaeologists and biologists, recovered and reconstructed ancient Marek's Disease Virus (MDV) sequences from archaeological chickens spanning the past 1,000 years. By comparing viral genomes derived from both modern and ancient birds, they were able to pinpoint the genetic alterations responsible for the increased virulence of the modern virus. Based on the ancient genetic sequences, they were also able to resurrect ancient biological processes using cellular assays, demonstrating that ancient strains were significantly milder than their modern counterparts. 

This breakthrough not only sheds light on the evolutionary history of Marek's Disease Virus (MDV), but also holds promise for the development of more effective therapies against this devastating poultry disease.

This new study is based on DNA isolated from chicken bones that were excavated from 140 archaeological sites in Europe and the Near East. These ancient genomes revealed that Marek's Disease Virus (MDV) was widespread in European chickens at least 1,000 years before the disease was first described in 1907. This highlights the importance of preserving archaeological remains, especially given their power to reveal valuable insights into the evolution of virulence.


Read the full story on the University of Oxford website.