eLife digest | A molecular portrait of maternal sepsis from Byzantine Troy

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A molecular portrait of maternal sepsis from Byzantine Troy

eLife digest

Affiliation details

McMaster University, Canada; MYcroarray, United States; School of Medicine and Public Health, University of Wisconsin-Madison, United States; University of Wisconsin-Madison, United States; University of Iowa, United States; Tübingen University, Germany; University of California, United States; Biotechnology Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison, United States; Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, United States; National Institute of Infectious Diseases, Japan; Yale University, United States; University of Pisa, Italy; The University of Sydney, Australia; Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, Canada

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, Devault, Mortimer et al. 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 et al. 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 et al. 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.

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.20983.002