The burial site in Troy (in present-day Turkey). Image credit: Gebhard Bieg, 2005 (taken from Devault et al. (CC BY 4.0))

Diagnosing an 800-year-old fatal infection

Ancient tissue samples contain DNA from the bacteria that may have killed a woman in medieval Troy.

Why and how have some bacteria evolved to cause illness in humans? One way to study bacterial evolution is to search for ancient samples of bacteria and use DNA sequencing technology to investigate how modern bacteria have changed from their ancestors. Understanding the evolution process may help researchers to understand how some bacteria become resistant to the antibiotics designed to kill them.

Complications that occur during pregnancy, including bacterial infections, have long been a major cause of death for women. Now, Alison Devault, Tatum Mortimer and colleagues have been able to sequence the DNA of bacteria found in tissue collected from a woman buried 800 years ago in a cemetery in Troy. Some of the woman’s tissues had been well preserved because they had calcified (probably as the result of infection), which preserved their structure in a mineralized layer. Two mineralized “nodules” in the body appear to be the remains of abscesses. Some of the human DNA in the nodules came from a male, suggesting that the woman was pregnant with a boy and that the abscesses formed in placental tissue.

Sequencing the DNA of the bacteria in the abscess allowed Devault, Mortimer and co-workers to diagnose the woman’s infection, which was caused by two types of bacteria. One species, called Gardnerella vaginalis, is found in modern pregnancy-related infections. The DNA of the ancient samples was similar to that of modern bacteria. The other bacteria species was an ancient form of Staphylococcus saprophyticus, a type of bacteria that causes urinary tract infections. However, the DNA of the ancient S. saprophyticus bacteria is quite different to that of the bacteria found in modern humans. Instead, their DNA sequence appears more similar to forms of the bacteria that infect currently livestock. As humans lived closely with their livestock at the time the woman lived, her infection may be due to a type of bacteria that passed easily between humans and animals.

Overall, the results suggest that the disease-causing properties of bacteria can arise from a wide range of sources. In addition, Devault, Mortimer and colleagues have demonstrated that certain types of tissue found in archeological remains are a potential gold mine of information about the evolution of bacteria and other microbes found in the human body.

To find out more

Listen to Caitlin Pepperell discuss childbirth mortality in episode 36 of the eLife podcast.
Read the eLife research paper on which this eLife digest is based: “A molecular portrait of maternal sepsis from Byzantine Troy” (January 10, 2017).
eLife is an open-access journal that publishes outstanding research in the life sciences and biomedicine.
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