Once again, new technology and procedures have allowed modern science to unlock the secrets of the past and delve into areas that were previously unobtainable to us. This time, it has been regarding an ancient disease that is still with us today but was never known to have existed for so long.
In Michigan, two teams of University researchers have just confirmed the existence of brucellosis in some ancient skeletal remains that were found. Brucellosis is an infectious disease that still lives on in today's world but this new finding suggests that the disease has been with us since at least the Middle Ages, if not earlier. This has come to quite a shock to both researchers and the medical community who had never imagined that the disease had been with us for that long.
The research was conducted by a team working at a medieval burial site in Albania. They worked in conjunction with another team who were based at a DNA lab in East Lansing; it is their combined results that have confirmed the new findings which would not have been possible without the collaboration of the two teams and the advances in technology that have allowed this analysis of the DNA.
Brucellosis is a respiratory illness that causes severe fever. It is contracted by eating infected meat but can also be contracted through unpasteurised dairy products or direct contact with infected animals. Sometimes, simply touching an infected animal that is carrying the bacteria is enough to infect a person and although it is much rarer today than it was, there are still many cases reported each year.
A study co-led by Todd Fenton (above), associate professor of anthropology, is the first to confirm the existence of the infectious disease brucellosis in ancient skeletal remains. Photo by G.L. Kohuth
Todd Fenton is the associate professor of anthropology. He said that the DNA testing confirmed that the disease had been contracted by the skeleton found that was around 1000 years old. He said, "For years, we had to hypothesize the cause of pathological conditions like this," Fenton said. "The era of DNA testing and the contributions that DNA can make to my work are really exciting."
Todd Fenton has a group of MSU graduate students who consisted of a mixture of bone specialists and bioarcheologists. They were excavating sites in Butrint which is an ancient city in Albania. It had been part of the Roman colony but had eventually been left in the Middle Ages due to flooding. However, human remains were found here, possibly of people who had been left behind, had no option to leave or maybe did not leave in time or had died before the floods had come. The tests were conducted to determine aspects such as age and sex. It was noticed that there were significant lesions on some of the remains that date back to the 10th to 13th century. The team had at first thought these could have been caused by tuberculosis which would have been very common at the time and often causes similar lesions on skeletal remains.
The team sent samples of the bone to the DNA lab in East Lansing in order to try and confirm this. David Foran is the director there and it was his team that then extracted DNA and tested it to see what pathogens still existed, however there was a negative result for tuberculosis. This was a big surprise to all of the team who had been sure that tuberculosis tests would have come back as positive.
It was known that brucellosis could have caused similar lesions on the remains so they retested for this disease with some trepidation. Their hunch was correct as he results came back as positive for brucellosis and the mystery was solved.
"In this case it was a combination of inquisitiveness, persistence and of course collaboration," Foran said. "It is amazing to find something brand new in something that is a thousand years old."