Writing about web page http://mbio.asm.org/content/5/4/e01337-14
Diagnosing a 700-Year-Old Infection
Last summer, Warwick Professor of microbial genomics Mark Pallenand colleagues described recovering tuberculosis genomes from the lung tissue of a 215-year-old mummy from Hungary in the New England Journal of Medicine.Soon afterwards, news of his interest in metagenomic analyses on historical samples spread, and materials started to flow in.
Italian anthropologist Raffaella Bianucci asked Pallen if he would look for pathogens in archaeological samples from Belgium and Sardinia, an island off the coast of Italy, and he agreed. The relationship led to recovering a genome of the bacterium Brucella melitensis from a 700-year-old skeleton found in the ruins of a Medieval Italian village.
Reporting this week in mBio®, the authors describe using a technique called shotgun metagenomics to sequence DNA from a calcified nodule in the pelvic region of a middle-aged male skeleton excavated from the Sardinian settlement of Geridu, thought to have been abandoned in the late 14th century. Shotgun metagenomics allows scientists to sequence DNA without looking for a specific target.
From this sample, the researchers recovered the genome of Brucella melitensis, which causes an infection called brucellosis in livestock and humans. In humans, brucellosis is usually acquired by ingesting unpasteurized dairy products or from direct contact with infected animals. Symptoms include fevers, arthritis and swelling of the heart and liver. The disease is still found in the Mediterranean region.
“Normally when you think of calcified material in human or animal remains you think about tuberculosis, because that’s the most common infection that leads to calcification,” Pallen says. “We were a bit surprised to get Brucella instead.”
The skeleton contained 32 hardened nodules the size of a penny in the pelvic area, though Pallen says it’s unclear if they originated in the pelvis, or higher up in the chest or other body part. The team took care to sample the interior of a nodule, to eliminate the risk of contamination from soil.
In additional experiments, the research team showed that the DNA fragments extracted had the appearance of aged DNA – they were shorter than contemporary strands, with only 100 base pairs, and had characteristic G-A or C-T mutations at the ends. They also found that the medieval Brucella strain, which they called Geridu-1, was closely related to a recent Brucellastrain called Ether, identified in Italy in 1961, and two other Italian strains identified in 2006 and 2007. They confirmed their findings by comparing the distribution of genetic insertions and deletions located in Geridu-1 with those found in other Brucella strains.
The study “confirms that whole-genome sequences from bacterial pathogens can be recovered from human remains by metagenomics hundreds or even thousands of years postmortem,” Pallen says.
Pallen’s team is now testing shotgun metagenomics on a range of additional samples, including historical material from Hungarian mummies; Egyptian mummies; a Korean mummy from the 16th or 17th century; and lung tissue from a French queen from the Merovingian dynasty, which ruled France from the 5th to 8th centuries; as well as contemporary sputum samples from the Gambia in Africa.
“Metagenomics stands ready to document past and present infections, shedding light on the emergence, evolution and spread of microbial pathogens,” Pallen says. “We’re cranking through all of these samples and we’re hopeful that we’re going to find new things.”
-- Karen Blum, science journalist writing for Mbiosphere
Original blog posting here: http://mbioblog.asm.org/mbiosphere/2014/07/diagnosing-a-700-year-old-infection.html