Detecting disease in ancient remains is difficult due mainly to contamination. Nevertheless, for the first time, scientists from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, using a novel method of protein analysis, have been able to ascertain that a 500-year old Inca mummy called "the Maiden" suffered from bacterial lung infection at the time of death.
The method used could help solve many forensic mysteries and identify the cause of death in case of multiple infections.
Pathogen detection in human remains based on DNA of microbes can only detect the presence of microbes and not prove whether the person was infected. This technique is also susceptible to environment contamination.
As part of their study to determine the cause of death in two mummies which were discovered buried at an elevation of 22,000 feet in the Andes in 1999, scientists compared the proteins found from the mouth swabs of the two mummies, with those found in the large databases of the human genome. The researchers used proteomics, the study of proteins, to analyze the immune system response from the samples.
From the comparison , scientists were able to detect similarities in the protein profile of the 15-year old mummy called "The Maiden" with those of people who had chronic respiratory infection. Analysis of DNA of the mummy indicated the presence of bacteria belonging to the Mycobacterium family, which causes tuberculosis and upper respiratory tract infection. In addition X-ray of the lungs of "the Maiden" showed signs of lung infection at the time of death. All these, have helped the researchers identify the cause of death of "the Maiden."
Similar analysis of the other mummy found along with "the Maiden" did not show any signs of respiratory infection.
Angelique Corthals, lead author of the research said "Our study is the first of its kind since rather than looking for the pathogen, which is notoriously difficult to do in historical samples, we are looking at the immune system protein profile of the "patient," which more accurately tells us that there was indeed an infection at the time of death."
She added "Our technique opens a new door to solving some of history's biggest mysteries, such as the reasons why the flu of 1918 was so devastating. It will also enhance our understanding of our future's greatest threats, such as the emergence of new infectious agents or re-emergence of known infectious diseases."
by RTT Staff Writer
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