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A look at the historical and scientific perspectives on death and decay.

The Recovery, Interpretation and Use of Ancient Pathogen Genomes

A review of the history of ancient DNA in pathogen and pandemic research and how we interpret the spread of diseases in the past.

Oct 06, 2020

Authors: Sebastian Duchene, Simon Y.W. Ho, Ann G. Carmichael, Edward C. Holmes, and Hendrik Poinar

Current Biology, September 2020. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.08.081

Abstract

The ability to sequence genomes from ancient biological material has provided a rich source of information for evolutionary biology and engaged considerable public interest. Although most studies of ancient genomes have focused on vertebrates, particularly archaic humans, newer technologies allow the capture of microbial pathogens and microbiomes from ancient and historical human and non-human remains. This coming of age has been made possible by techniques that allow the preferential capture and amplification of discrete genomes from a background of predominantly host and environmental DNA. There are now near-complete ancient genome sequences for three pathogens of considerable historical interest — pre-modern bubonic plague (Yersinia pestis), smallpox (Variola virus) and cholera (Vibrio cholerae) — and for three equally important endemic human disease agents — Mycobacterium tuberculosis (tuberculosis), Mycobacterium leprae (leprosy) and Treponema pallidum pallidum (syphilis). Genomic data from these pathogens have extended earlier work by paleopathologists. There have been efforts to sequence the genomes of additional ancient pathogens, with the potential to broaden our understanding of the infectious disease burden common to past populations from the Bronze Age to the early 20th century. In this review we describe the state-of-the-art of this rapidly developing field, highlight the contributions of ancient pathogen genomics to multidisciplinary endeavors and describe some of the limitations in resolving questions about the emergence and long-term evolution of pathogens.

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