Scientists have made an amazing discovery that sheds new light on the history of an important disease. Researchers from the universities of Basel and Zurich in Switzerland found the genetic material of the pathogen Treponema pallidum in the bones of people who died in Brazil around 2,000 years ago.

This is the oldest confirmed discovery of this pathogen yet, and it shows that humans were suffering from diseases related to syphilis – known as treponematoses – long before Christopher Columbus discovered America.

The new findings, published in the journal Nature, question previous theories about syphilis spreading from Spanish conquistadors. By analyzing tiny samples of DNA from very old bones, scientists can now track how diseases spread historically and evolved over time. This helps our understanding of infectious disease history, which is important for global health.

An international research team led by Professor Verena Schünemann examined prehistoric bones from four individuals who died around 2,000 years ago in the coastal Santa Caterina region of Brazil.

Some bones showed visible pathological changes that could indicate the people suffered from a disease like syphilis. Using special dentist tools, the team took very small bone samples in sterile conditions.

They were able to isolate ancient genetic material (ancient DNA) from the syphilis pathogen Treponema pallidum. Their study in Nature showed all the bacterial genomes could be assigned to the Treponema pallidum endemicum strain, which causes non-sexually transmitted bejel or endemic syphilis. While syphilis is a global health risk, bejel today only occurs in very dry parts of Africa and Asia through skin contact.

Professor Schünemann said Our study has shown that endemic syphilis was already present in humid areas of Brazil 2,000 years ago. This means people were getting endemic syphilis, likely through skin contact, over 1,000 years before Columbus reached the Americas. The findings suggest diseases similar to syphilis originated before Columbus, making it less likely he brought sexually transmitted syphilis to Europe. Other discoveries by the team also suggest some treponematosis forms existed in Europe too.

Comparing the ancient DNA to modern pathogens showed gene transfers occurred between bacteria over time, which likely drove the divergence between subspecies that cause different treponematosis infections. The analysis also suggests Treponema pallidum emerged sometime between 12,000-550 BC. So the history of these pathogens is much older than previously thought.

While the exact origin of syphilis remains unknown, scientists now know for certain that treponematoses were not foreign to ancient American inhabitants long before European exploration. Advances in ancient DNA may one day solve the mystery of where sexually transmitted syphilis began.


Sources

University of Basel | Majander, K., Pla-Díaz, M., du Plessis, L. et al. Redefining the treponemal history through pre-Columbian genomes from Brazil. Nature (2024). doi.org/10.1038/s41586-023-06965-x


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