Quarantined from Coronavirus? Learn how DNA ancestry techniques can determine where the virus came from.
To start, we would just like to say that we truly hope you, your family, and your friends are all taking care during this pandemic. Further, this article contains no advice on how to prevent the spread of viruses or any specific recommendations for those with immediate, pressing questions. You can find answers to most of those questions from your local health departments.
Instead, this article is intended for all of the quarantined science nerds out there seeking comfort in the miracle of science (and how you can experience the miracle yourself!).
Specifically, we’ll be looking at how science can tell us where the coronavirus originated, and how you can use the same powerful technology at home to tell you about everything from your ancestry to the bacteria you have in your gut!
Trust us, nothing else you read today will be as fun or interesting.
A bit of background….
If you haven’t noticed, there’s a ridiculous conversation about what the virus is called. There’s been a lot of confusion about the difference between the virus and the disease it causes. Here’s a simplification, for our purposes:
COVID-19 – stands for “Coronavirus Disease – 2019”
Disease outbreaks are named for the virus (or bacteria) that causes them, plus the year the outbreak started.
SARS-CoV-2 – stands for “severe acute respiratory syndrome – coronavirus – 2”
The virus is named this because those are the symptoms it causes, the family of viruses it is in, and its “number” – 2.
The disease outbreak was first detected in Wuhan, a city in China. However, that is not where the virus originated. In fact, the virus has a much deeper and more sinister past – as can only be revealed by DNA ancestry testing!
The Hunt for Coronavirus Origins
Yes, you heard that right. In order to discover the origin of SARS-CoV-2, scientists are using a variety of methods that you can literally order from your couch right now. Scientists used whole-genome sequencing (available to you for less than $1000) and metagenomics (like those used in microbiome test kits).
To start, scientists did a whole-genome sequencing kit on the isolated CoV-2 genome. Fortunately for science, similar techniques can be used to sequence and study both DNA and RNA.
Unlike the human genome (stored as DNA), coronaviruses are RNA viruses. To function, RNA viruses attach to your cells, then inject their RNA sequence into your cells. Your ribosomes “read” this RNA sequence, and build all of the proteins that the virus needs in order to replicate itself. Then, these particles burst from the cell – ready to infect other cells or be sneezed and coughed onto another victim.
However, scientists also looked at the “metagenomics” of the virus – that includes the RNA sequence and all of the proteins it codes for. Using this massive amount of data, scientists were able to determine that the virus is 96% similar to a coronavirus known to infect bats!
Mystery solved, right?
Not quite. Viruses have families, too…
Now, to be clear, virus “families” are not like your family. There are no terrible “dad” jokes, family outings, or forced quarantine bonding.
In fact, virus “families” are simply groups of viruses that are closely related to each other. Like humans, viruses reproduce. They pass on their traits to the viruses they create, although mutations can happen from time to time, which creates branches in the family tree.
Since CoV-2 shares about 96%, we can be relatively certain that it is a coronavirus. But, 96% is a very low number, when it comes to DNA. Consider this: You are 99.9% related to any person, even if they live on another continent. To put it into perspective, you are about 96% related to a chimpanzee.
That means this new virus is about as closely related to bat coronavirus as you are to another great ape. So, the coronavirus family may have started in bats – but that’s not where it was before humans contracted it.
2 Theories on Coronavirus Evolution
Much like taking a DNA ancestry test, the results can only tell you so much based on what other populations of people have been tested. In human populations, the top ancestry companies have sampled many parts of the human population. In fact, some companies can give you details on your ancestry down to individual cities.
Unfortunately, the same level of detail doesn’t exist for the coronavirus family. We do know that this newest coronavirus is related (a least somewhat) to other epidemics – such as SARS and MERS. This points to a much larger problem.
In theory, there are two basic ways that COVID-19 could have been established in humans.
#1. The virus mutated in an “intermediate host”
In this theory, bats maintain a reservoir of a certain coronavirus. The virus does not affect them severely, and as such, it continues to infect and reproduce within the population. Since the new virus is only 96% identical to the bat coronavirus, it is unlikely that COVID-19 started with someone interacting with a bat.
A more likely scenario, based on the DNA ancestry of the COVID-19 virus suggests that bats transferred the virus to another group of animals. A likely candidate is the pangolin, a small mammal covered in tough armor plates. The pangolin is the world’s most trafficked wild animal – taken from the wilds of Africa, India, and South Asia to be sold as pets or into traditional medicine markets. So, many have been pointing their finger at the illegal pet trade. Slow down, tiger.
One major problem here is that we don’t know if anyone was selling pangolins at the fish market that the first outbreak has been linked to, or if it was a different intermediary animal that ultimately transferred to humans.
The virus – in this scenario – could have come from any number of sources. Though “bat coronavirus” seems to be most closely related to CoV-2, this is in part because we only have measurements on a few relatively common carriers of disease. Pangolins, civets, birds, and even domestic animals can carry many viruses – and few of these populations were monitored at all before the H1N1 outbreaks in the early 2000s. The disease could have come from any of these populations, and may just have mutated quickly in an animal source we are not monitoring.
There’s another way that the virus could have ended up in humans.
#2. The virus mutated after infecting humans.
Regardless of how the virus got into humans, one theory postulates, it may have mutated into a pathogenic virus after being transmitted to humans. This is more unlikely, but still very possible.
Viruses are not always pathogenic. This means that you can have a virus in your body and not suffer any ill-effects, because the virus cannot infect, commandeer, and destroy your cells effectively. However, some viruses do it just effectively enough to not cause symptoms, but are still effective enough to spread through the population. In fact, a recent microbiome test I took told me I harbored dozens of viruses that I was apparently unaware of. It’s hard to know when these viruses exist in a population because they show no symptoms.
In this theory, the virus may have been transferred to the human population some time ago, but it only recently mutated into a pathogenic version. By contrast, a pathogenic virus is very effective at commandeering and destroying cells in its effort to reproduce. This can create the symptoms of the disease – which is how science notices it is there to begin with.
The Mystery Continues…
While it is clear that this new COVID-19 virus is related to a much larger family of viruses within the animal kingdom – it is far from clear where the virus originated. In fact, we likely will never know because of how many animals and people we would have to test to fully understand where and how the virus transferred through both human and animal populations.
While scientists continue their search for the animal or human origins of the virus and the rest of read internet stories about the virus, the bigger story here is that the virus could have migrated to humans from almost any population. Pangolin collectors could have contracted a pathogenic version of the virus. It could have been passed from bats to domestic farm animals and into humans before it mutated into a pathogen. It may have been present in humans long before it mutated.
So, that’s why calling it the “Chinese Virus” is really too small of a classification for how many different parts of the globe the virus may have originated from. The swine flu originated in North America on domestic pig farms meant for our consumption, but no one calls it the “American Virus.”
Start Your Own Mystery!
The technology featured in this fascinating coronavirus mystery is available to you, right now, as promised. Check out how you can get access to the scientific techniques these scientists used to identify and track the coronavirus family!
Get a DNA Test Kit!
Unlike how the coronavirus RNA was sequenced, the most common DNA testing method on the market measures only a few common variants within a population. This saves time and money, and is still very effective for making predictions because humans share 99.9% of their DNA.
With these tests, you can get information on your health predispositions, nutrition, exercise, and many other traits – all based on a large number of variations within your DNA. But, like the coronavirus, you can also find your family! By comparing the variants you carry with the variants other people carry, they can tell you exactly who you are related to and how your family may have migrated around the globe. If you thought the coronavirus mystery was fun, you’ll love discovering your own journey.
You can get started by checking out the best companies we have reviewed!
Go Big… Whole Genome Testing
Every day, scientists are learning more and more about the role of DNA in health, fitness, and overall wellbeing. If you want to get the maximum amount of information out of your DNA, the way to go is a whole-genome sequence test kit!
Instead of measuring 700,000 single variants within your DNA, these tests document every nucleotide – all 6 billion! As science grows and scientists develop more methods of extracting information from large datasets, people who bought a whole-genome kit will get the best and most accurate results.
Metagenomic Tests? What are they?
Metagenomics is the study of everything your DNA creates. It includes the RNA sequences that are transcribed from DNA, as well as the protein molecules that are translated from the RNAs. In a sense, metagenomics looks at not only what DNA is present, but which proteins are actually being created and expressed.
Currently, you can get several metagenomic analyses with a Microbiome Test Kit. These kits are offered by several companies, most of which look at not only the DNA they find, but also what proteins and RNA sequences are present within your gut microbiome. They use the patterns they find to detect and identify thousands of microscopic organisms that are both infecting you and helping you digest your food. While microbiome science is taking baby steps, it will likely become a major tool of individualized health!