An international team of scientists was successful in reconstructing a dozen medieval and modern genomes of the leprosy-causing bacteria Mycobacterium leprae from skeletons and biopsies.
Under the direction of Professor Johannes Krause, University of Tübingen, and Professor Stewart Cole, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology of Lausanne (EPFL), the research group created a genome from archaeological finds for the first time without having to resort to a reference sequence. Professor Almut Nebel and Dr. Ben Krause-Kyora, both of the Institute of Clinical Molecular Biology, Kiel University, belong to the team, whose findings are to be published this week in Science
Leprosy, a devastating infectious and chronic disease, was widespread in Europe until the Late Middle Ages. Persons infected with the disease were isolated in leprosy colonies specifically built for the patients. Today, the disease is found in 91 countries worldwide with more than 200,000 new infections per year. In order to trace the history of the disease, the scientists reconstructed the complete genomes of M. leprae
from five medieval skeletons from Denmark, Sweden and Great Britain. These specimens exhibited the characteristic bone changes associated with leprosy. Additionally, the M. leprae
genetic substance was decoded from seven biopsy samples of contemporary patients.