The origins of many plant diseases appear to be recent and associated with the rise of domestication, the spread of agriculture or recent global movements of crops. Distinguishing between these possibilities is problematic because of the difficulty of determining rates of molecular evolution over short time frames. Heterochronous approaches using recent and historical samples show that plant viruses exhibit highly variable and often rapid rates of molecular evolution. The accuracy of estimated evolution rates and age of origin can be greatly improved with the inclusion of older molecular data from archaeological material. Here we present the first reconstruction of an archaeological RNA genome, which is of Barley Stripe Mosaic Virus (BSMV) isolated from barley grain ~750 years of age. Phylogenetic analysis of BSMV that includes this genome indicates the divergence of BSMV and its closest relative prior to this time, most likely around 2000 years ago. However, exclusion of the archaeological data results in an apparently much more recent origin of the virus that postdates even the archaeological sample. We conclude that this viral lineage originated in the Near East or North Africa, and spread to North America and East Asia with their hosts along historical trade routes.
The first ancient DNA recovery and study of a plant disease: chalk up another score for the amazing plant assemblage from Qasr Ibrim! The recent evolution of this virus and its apparently arrival in Nubia highlights the the ongoing evolution of crop plants after domestication and provides another factor in the ongoing adaptation of improvement of crops.