Medical Research Council - London Institute of Medical Sciences

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Ancient Illness
30 March 2017

Ancient Illness

Laid to rest nearly a thousand years ago, this young man’s skeleton contains some fascinating genetic secrets. They’re the bones of a medieval pilgrim, buried in a hospital cemetery in Winchester, UK, some time in the 12th century. What’s special is the fact that this was a leprosarium – a graveyard for the victims of leprosy (also now known as Hansen’s disease). Although the disease has affected people around the world for thousands of years, little is known about how it has changed over time. By comparing DNA from leprosy-causing Mycobacterium leprae bacteria in the remains with today’s bugs, researchers have found that the bacterial genes have changed little since the time the man was buried. However, the bacteria that caused his leprosy are slightly different from those in other bodies buried nearby, sharing more similarity with strains from Asia. Maybe he picked up more than spiritual enlightenment on his pilgrimage.

Written by Kat Arney

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