A new way to screen ancient human remains for infectious disease is reported in the journal Scientific Reports this week. The proof-of-principle study uses a microbial detection array to correctly identify the DNA of the previously verified bacterial pathogen in two ancient human samples. The technique may represent an efficient and inexpensive palaeopathological tool to study health across time as well as space.
One of the challenges facing research into the origins of infectious disease and population health is that ancient human remains typically contain highly degraded DNA in which the infecting species often represent minority components. This can make sequence-based metagenomic analyses costly and time-consuming. Hendrik Poinar and colleagues suggest that microarrays, whose versatility is well established for modern clinical specimens, might offer a rapid but comprehensive snapshot of microbial diversity in complex samples without the lengthy analysis and high costs associated with high-throughput screening.
The authors use the Lawrence Livermore Microbial Detection Array (LLMDA) to successfully identify previously verified bacterial human pathogens, including Vibrio cholerae (cholera) in an intestinal specimen from AD 1849 and Yersinia pestis (‘Black Death’ plague) in a tooth from AD 1348. The findings demonstrate that the LLMDA can identify primary and/or co-infecting bacterial pathogens in ancient samples. The research highlights the potential of microarrays to become a useful screening tool for archaeological samples whereby microbial profiles can be swiftly, cheaply and accurately reconstructed.