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Science: Leprosy DNA extracted from medieval skeletons in Denmark

Science: Leprosy DNA extracted from medieval skeletons in Denmark

The Danish researchers revealed that bones of hundreds of people who died in the medieval town of Odense contain the traces of leprosy, ScienceNordic reported.

The frightening disease- leprosy, caused the death of Odense residents whose skeletons were discovered by the Danish researchers. The Odense skeletons are so well-preserved that the scientists were able to analyse DNA of the disease-causing bacteria after 700 years in the ground.

Leprosy can lead to stunted hands and feet, malodorous wounds, a collapsed nose, and blindness. Traces of the disease can be seen in the bones when it reaches an advanced stage and is diagnosable just by looking at the bones.

Taking samples of the bone allows scientists to find traces of the bacteria that cause leprosy.

“The bacteria are no longer alive. They died hundreds of years ago, so the skeleton is not infectious. But you can find their DNA on the bones in such large quantities that you can reconstruct the entire genome,”

says Jesper Lier Boldsen from The University of Southern Denmark, a professor in medieval leprosy and a co-author in the new study.

According to the recent study, medieval people didn’t know at the time that their unfortunate condition was caused by an infection of the Mycobacterium leprae bacterium. But seven hundreds of years after their deaths, scientists have found traces of the bacteria in the skeletal remains.

“The skeletons are really extraordinary. Not only when it comes to finding DNA from leprosy bacteria, but also when it comes to mapping human DNA,”

says lead-author Professor Ben Krause-Kyora from Kiel University and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Germany.

Scientists suggest that the new study provides new insights into the dramatic outbreak of leprosy that ravaged Denmark and large parts of Europe and culminated in the Middle Ages. The results could also lead to a wider understanding of how the disease progressed and how diabetes developed into Europe’s current leading affliction.

”The study is exciting because it opens up some perspectives that go beyond an epidemic in the Middle Ages,”

says doctor and professor, Ib Christian Bygbjerg. He was not involved in the new study.