Vienna (OTS) – Researchers from the Universities of Basel, Zurich and São Paulo, as well as NHM Vienna, have discovered the genome of the pathogen Treponema pallidum in the bones of people who died in Brazil 2,000 years ago. This earliest confirmed discovery of the pathogen proves that people were dying from syphilis-like illnesses – so-called treponematoses – long before Columbus discovered America. The new findings, published in the journal Nature, call into question previous theories about the spread of syphilis by Spanish conquerors.
The history of the emergence and spread of infectious diseases has been of great importance for global health, and not just since the Covid-19 pandemic. Using modern laboratory methods, researchers can now determine the smallest traces of pathogen DNA in prehistoric discoveries. In this way, they trace the historical spread and evolutionary development of pathogens.
An international research group led by Prof. Verena Schünemann from the University of Basel, formerly the University of Zurich, in collaboration with ETH Zurich, the Natural History Museum Vienna, in the person of Prof. Dr. Sabine Eggers, from the Department of Anthropology and the Universities of Vienna and São Paulo, examined prehistoric bones of people who died 2,000 years ago in the coastal region of Santa Catarina, Brazil. The pathological changes visible in some prehistoric bones indicate a syphilis-like illness in the deceased.
Prehistoric DNA from bones over 2,000 years old
Using fine dental drilling tools, researchers collected small bone samples under sterile conditions and isolated the syphilis pathogen's prehistoric genetic material, so-called ancient DNA. Their study, published in the renowned journal Nature, shows that all bacterial genomes examined can be attributed to the Treponema pallidum endemicum strain, that is, the pathogen that causes endemic syphilis (Bejel).
Treponematoses are a group of infectious diseases that also includes the sexually transmitted syphilis. Although syphilis as a sexually transmitted disease represents a global health risk, endemic/Bejel syphilis, which is transmitted through skin contact, only occurs in very dry areas of Africa and Asia.
“With our study we can prove that endemic syphilis was already present in humid areas in Brazil around 2 thousand years ago”, says Verena Schünemann.
The 8,000 km long Brazilian coast was populated around 8,000 to 1,000 years ago by people of the Sambaqui (or Shell Mountain) culture, from where the samples examined here come from. “The maintenance of this lasting culture was only possible through the contact of these people over the centuries and across thousands of kilometers. The temporal and spatial network also contributed to the spread of disease”, says Sabine Eggers (Natural History Museum Vienna). People were infected with endemic syphilis more than 1,000 years before Columbus arrived in the New World, probably through skin contact.
Diseases similar to syphilis are of pre-Columbian origin
To this day, there is intense debate among experts and medical historians about whether Christopher Columbus's sailors brought sexually transmitted syphilis from the New World to the Old World when they returned in 1493. From the late 15th century, the disease spread rapidly. , especially in European port cities.
“The fact that we only found the endemic syphilis pathogen in the Brazilian bones of Sambaquis Jabuticabeira II and not the sexually transmitted syphilis pathogen currently leaves the question of its origin open,” says Kerttu Majander, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Basel and one of the study's first authors. For the authors of the study, there is a lot of evidence that treponematoses were already widespread in Europe before Columbus' return.
“As we have not found any sexually transmitted syphilis pathogens in South America, the theory that Columbus brought syphilis to Europe seems increasingly unlikely,” confirms Verena Schünemann. Instead, his group's previous discoveries in Finland and Poland, for example, indicate that forms of treponematoses already existed in Europe.
Recombination may have driven the development of syphilis-like diseases
Many bacterial species exchange evolutionarily useful characteristics through so-called horizontal gene transfer or recombination. Comparison of prehistoric DNA from bones from Brazil with present-day pathogens shows that such recombination events occurred. “Although we cannot say exactly when this switch occurred, it is probably the mechanism driving the emergence of the current subspecies of the pathogen family,” says Marta Pla-Díaz from the University of Basel, the other lead author of the study.
DNA comparison also allows us to date the origin of the Treponema pallidum family. Investigations show that these pathogens emerged in the period between 12,000 and 550 BC. must have appeared. The origins of these pathogens are much older than previously assumed.
“Even though the origin of syphilis still leaves room for speculation, we now at least know without a doubt that treponematoses were not unknown to Native Americans centuries before contact with Europeans,” says Verena Schünemann. She and her team are confident that, thanks to advances in identifying prehistoric DNA, the origin of syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease, can also be clarified.
Interactions between the environment, humans and animals today
No direct descendants of the Sambaqui who built Jabuticabeira II have been proven. However, today Kaingang, Guarani and Xokleng indigenous people live in this region. Ethical and legal issues are therefore also discussed in the study. Sabine Eggers emphasizes that “historical injustices, colonization and dispossession that have affected the integration and survival of indigenous communities and their territorial rights are highlighted in the study”.
It also discusses the impact of diseases such as endemic syphilis on indigenous communities, emphasizing that “this disease is not officially considered a current public health problem in Brazil”.
A culturally sensitive choice of words was ensured in collaboration with Edson Krenak, indigenous activist and expert on Brazil.
As climate change leads to changes in the emergence and distribution of pathogens, this study highlights the need for a holistic approach. Evolutionary medicine and the concept of One Health, which takes into account the health of humans, animals and the environment, are crucial to overcoming these challenges.
Kerttu Majander, Marta Pla-Diaz, et al.
Redefining treponemal history through pre-Columbian genomes from Brazil
Nature (2024), doi: 10.1038/s41586-023-06965-x
Questions and contact:
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