A 500-year-old frozen Incan mummy suffered bacterial lung infection at the time of its death, as revealed by a novel proteomics method in an ancient sample for the very first time. Detecting diseases in ancient remains is often fraught with challenges, especially because of contamination. Techniques based on microbe DNA can easily be confused by environmental contamination, and they can only confirm that the pathogen was present, not that the person was infected. But the researchers behind the study, led by Angelique Corthals of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, found a way around this problem, the journal Public Library of Science ONE reports.

They used proteomics, the large-scale study of proteins, particularly their structures and functions, rather than DNA remains, to profile immune system response from degraded samples taken from 500 year-old mummies, according to a John Jay College statement. The team swabbed the lips of two Andean Inca mummies, buried at a height of 22,000-feet and originally discovered in 1999, and compared the proteins they found to large databases of the human genome. They found that the protein profile from the mummy of a 15-year old girl, called “The Maiden”, was similar to that of chronic respiratory infection patients, and the analysis of the DNA showed the presence probably of pathogenic bacteria in the genus Mycobacterium, responsible for upper respiratory tract infections and tuberculosis.

Science unravels the past

Science unravels the past

In addition, X-rays of the lungs of “The Maiden” showed signs of lung infection at the time of death. Proteomics, DNA, and x-rays from another mummy found together with the Maiden did not show signs of respiratory infection. “Pathogen detection in ancient tissues isn't new, but until now it's been impossible to say whether the infectious agent was latent or active,” says Corthals. “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,” Corthals added. “Our study opens the door to solving many historical and current biomedical and forensic mysteries, from understanding why the plague of 1918 was so lethal, to finding out which pathogen is responsible for death in cases of multiple infections,” concludes Corthals. 


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