Microbiology and History shake hands

June 19, 20080 comments

Paleomicrobiology is an emerging field that brings together the hitherto unrelated fields microbiology and history. Is it not exciting to read about successfully culturing enteric bacteria from the bowels of a mastadon corpse found in permafrost and microscopic identification of crab lice from the pubic hair of a 2,000 year old mummy? It kicked off some 15 years ago when molecular detection of Mycobacterium tuberculosis DNA from ancient human skeletons of people suspected of having TB, was reported. With all stat-of-the-art techniques and experimental protocols in hand, authentic molecular diagnosis of past infections like plague, TB, leprosy, typhoid and influenza is possible. Pioneering studies have compared the genotypes of organisms responsible for infection in past centuries with modern strains in order to gain a better understanding of microbe evolution.

Paleomicrobiology provides historians and anthropologists with demonstrative data with which to analyse mass burials and past epidemics and their impact on human populations. These data help to resolve controversies regarding the aetiology of past epidemics such as the Black Death. Continuing progress in analytical techniques may allow further diagnoses of epidemics of as yet unknown aetiology and increased insight into the epidemiology of past infections. Looking backwards topast epidemics using modern tools and concepts will in turn help to understand thecontinuous evolution of microbes and of their direct and indirect relationships withhumans.

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