News / Africa

TB Origins Found in Africa

A patient who tested positive for extreme drug resistant tuberculosis (XDR-TB) awaits treatment at a rural hospital at Tugela Ferry in South Africa's impoverished KwaZulu Natal province, (File photo).
A patient who tested positive for extreme drug resistant tuberculosis (XDR-TB) awaits treatment at a rural hospital at Tugela Ferry in South Africa's impoverished KwaZulu Natal province, (File photo).


Joe DeCapua
The origins of humans have been traced to Africa. And now, so have the origins of tuberculosis. New research shows the evolutionary trees of both humans and TB have grown side-by-side.

TB bacteria originated in Africa at least 70,000 years ago. That’s the finding of a team of researchers led by Professor Sebastien Gagneaux of the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute. But why study the history of TB?

Gagneaux said, “At the end of the day, it’s a certain kind of historic question and there have been long discussions about where TB came from originally. That’s on the one hand. On the other hand, the idea is that by learning from the past and how infectious disease evolves over time, this potentially could give us some clue about the future of the TB epidemic.”

To trace the origins of TB researchers relied on genetic material, which is relatively easy to come by.

“The trick is to use the genomic information that we can get from bacteria living today. That’s an approach which has been used for all kinds of other organisms, including humans, themselves. So we actually are learning a lot from what people are doing with human genetics,” he said.

Gagneaux said that the evolutionary trees of humans and TB probably did more than just grow side by side.

“I think that’s a nice way to put it. Maybe you can even say one inside the other. Imagine where the TB bacteria live, which is actually inside of human bodies. Yes, side by side, or one inside the other.”

Humans have bacteria on them and in them all the time. In fact, they help keep us alive. Researchers are trying to determine if tuberculosis bacteria were always harmful to humans.

“That’s also something that we’re trying to address in this work because there’s this striking feature in tuberculosis, which is this phenomena called latency – so-called latent infection -- meaning that people can carry these bacteria. So they’re actually infected without having any symptoms of disease. This latency period can last for several decades. Most of the people, who are actually carrying these bacteria, will actually never develop so-called active tuberculosis,” he said.

Studies are trying to determine why only five to ten percent of the estimated two billion people infected with the bacteria actually come down with active tuberculosis.

Another question is whether the bacteria were at one time beneficial to humans?

“Obviously, there seems to be something special about these five to ten percent of people who are coming down. Maybe that’s just bad luck. We know there are obvious very strong risk factors, such as HIV co-infection or malnutrition. Diabetes is also a factor, which can increase your risk of developing active tuberculosis once you have been infected. But again this idea that maybe carrying these bacteria in this latent form could potentially be beneficial because it might protect against other diseases. Again, that’s a very provocative hypothesis, which we, however, cannot completely neglect.”

Gagneaux said TB left Africa when humans did, about 65,000 to 70,000 years ago. Then, about 10,000 years ago, came the Neolithic Demographic Transition. It’s the time when people started to develop agriculture and domesticate animals. But it was also a time when diseases jumped from domesticated animals to humans for the first time. Gagneaux says for many years it was assumed that TB took the same path – from animals to humans. However, the research shows that TB in humans pre-dates the domestication of animals. It’s particularly adapted to live inside humans and can’t really survive on its own in the environment.

There was another important development during the Neolithic Demographic Transition. Humans started to form settlements that were densely populated. It’s an ideal situation for the spread of tuberculosis through the air from human to human.

“Because of these changes in these human behaviors and numbers, potentially TB might have become more virulent in the sense of causing disease maybe more quickly or maybe a more deadly disease. It’s true that TB is very deadly nowadays. So if you don’t treat it, kills up to 50 percent of people who actually have active tuberculosis,” Gagneaux said.

He added that before settlements, in the hunter-gatherer days, perhaps TB was not as deadly.

“Overly deadly would be a bad strategy for any pathogen because you might just kill off all susceptible hosts and you might end up with nobody else to infect. And so only once through this Neolithic transition -- when more and more people were actually living close by -- TB maybe evolved in a way to be able to become more virulent and take advantage, if you will, of this increasing number of susceptible people to infect.”

After humans left Africa, they started to change in appearance as they adapted to their new geographical locations. TB also evolved and now there are many different strains of bacteria that cause the disease. The strain found in South Africa differs from that found in China, for example. Africa, though, still has the greatest diversity of TB strains.

Researchers hope that knowing the evolutionary history of TB will help in the development of new drug treatments and vaccines. Currently, the number of drug-resistant TB cases is growing. The knowledge may also help predict “future patterns of the disease.”

You May Like

Isolation, Despair Weigh on Refugees in Remote German Camp

Refugees resettled near village of Holzdorf deep in German forestland say there is limited interaction with public, mutual feelings of distrust

Britons Divided Over Bombing IS

Surveys show Europeans generally support more military action against Islamic State militants, but sizable opposition exists in Britain

Russia Blacklists Soros Foundations as 'Undesirable'

Russian officials add Soros groups to a list of foreign and international organizations banned from giving grants to Russian partners

By the Numbers

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?i
Carol Pearson
November 29, 2015 1:23 PM
The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?

The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video Political Motives Seen Behind Cancelled Cambodian Water Festival

For the fourth time in the five years since more than 350 people were killed in a stampede at Cambodia’s annual water festival, authorities canceled the event this year. Officials blamed environmental reasons as the cause, but many see it as fallout from rising political tensions with a fresh wave of ruling party intimidation against the opposition. David Boyle and Kimlong Meng report from Phnom Penh.

Video African Circus Gives At-Risk Youth a 2nd Chance

Ethiopia hosted the first African Circus Arts Festival this past weekend with performers from seven different African countries. Most of the performers are youngsters coming form challenging backgrounds who say the circus gave them a second chance.

Video US Lawmakers Brace for End-of-Year Battles

U.S. lawmakers are returning to Washington for Congress’ final working weeks of the year. And, as VOA's Michael Bowman reports, a full slate of legislative business awaits them, from keeping the federal government open to resolving a battle with the White House over the admittance of Syrian refugees.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video After Terrorist Attacks, Support for Refugees Fades

The terrorists who killed and injured almost 500 people around Paris this month are mostly French or Belgian nationals. But at least two apparently took advantage of Europe’s migrant crisis to sneak into the region. The discovery has hardened views about legitimate refugees, including those fleeing the same extremist violence that hit the French capital. Lisa Bryant has this report for VOA from the Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

As Thailand takes in the annual Loy Krathong festival, many ponder the country’s future and security. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs