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Syphilis-Like Diseases Were Already Widespread in America Before the Arrival of Columbus

Skeleton at the site in Jubuicabeira II, Brazil.
Credit: Dr. Jose Filippini.
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The history of the emergence and spread of infectious diseases was of great importance for global health even before the Covid-19 pandemic. With modern laboratory methods, researchers can now detect the tiniest traces of DNA from pathogens in prehistoric finds. That means they can trace back how these pathogens spread historically and their evolutionary development.

An international research group led by Professor Verena Schünemann from the University of Basel, formerly at the University of Zurich, in collaboration with ETH Zurich and the Universities of Vienna and Sao Paulo, examined prehistoric bones belonging to four individuals who died 2,000 years ago in the coastal region of Santa Caterina in Brazil. For some of the individuals visible pathological changes to the prehistoric bones were detected which could indicate that the deceased were suffering from an illness similar to syphilis.

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Prehistoric DNA from bones dating over 2,000 years old

The researchers used dentists’ drilling tools to remove minuscule samples of bone under sterile conditions. From those samples they isolated prehistoric genetic material (ancient DNA) belonging to the syphilis pathogen. Their study, published in the renowned scientific journal Nature, demonstrates that all the bacterial genomes that have been investigated can be attributed to the Treponema pallidum endemicum strain – that is, the pathogen that leads to bejel.

“The fact that the findings represent an endemic type of treponemal diseases, and not sexually transmitted syphilis, leaves the origin of the sexually transmitted syphilis still unsettled,” says Kerttu Majander, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Basel and one of the lead authors of the study. However, the authors consider that there is a lot to suggest that treponematoses were already widespread in Europe before Columbus’s time.

“As we have not found any sexually transmitted syphilis in South America, the theory that Columbus brought syphilis to Europe seems to appear more improbable,” agrees Schünemann. In point of fact, earlier discoveries by her group, for example in Finland and Poland, suggest that some forms of treponematoses already existed in Europe too.

Recombination could have driven the development of syphilis-like diseases

Many species of bacteria exchange traits that are of evolutionary benefit via what is known as horizontal gene transfer, or recombination. A comparison between the prehistoric DNA in the bones from Brazil and today’s pathogens shows that such recombination events have indeed taken place. “We cannot pinpoint exactly when this exchange took place, but it is probably one of the driving mechanisms in the divergence between the subspecies that cause different treponemal infections,” says Marta Pla-Díaz of the University of Basel, the other lead author of the study.

Reference: Majander K, Pla-Díaz M, Du Plessis L, et al. Redefining the treponemal history through pre-Columbian genomes from Brazil. Nature. 2024. doi: 10.1038/s41586-023-06965-x

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