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U of W researcher helps reveal ancient disease on 800-year-old skeleton

A Wisconsin scientist has played a major role in discovering a new ancient bacteria – one which targeted pregnant women.
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A researcher from the University of Wisconsin-Madison is making world headlines after a discovery she helped make concerning an 800-year-old skeleton dug up in Turkey.

Microbiologist Caitlin Pepperell is among the researchers who discovered that two strawberry-sized "calcified" nodules found on the body unearthed near the fabled city of Troy reveal a disease that afflicted pregnant women in the Byzantine-era.

As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports, Pepperell and other researchers built up a "molecular portrait" of two bacterial infections that proved to be fatal to the 30-year-old woman, which affected the placenta, amniotic fluid and membranes that surrounded her fetus.

Pepperell told the newspaper the research was a marked change from her usual work dealing with patients as an infectious disease specialist, saying in this case she felt more like a "medical detective."

She is among the academics who contributed to the piece of research published in the journal eLife on Wednesday.

Here's why it's an unusual finding

History.com explains the reason this case is particularly significant is that when working with ancient DNA, researchers can usually expect less than 1 percent of the organism to be preserved over time.

But in this case, because of the levels of calcium flowing through the woman's body to her unborn baby, more of the DNA was preserved as a result, allowing researchers to extract "a staggering amount of information."

"Amazingly, these samples yielded enough DNA to fully reconstruct the genomes of two species of bacteria, Staphylococcus saprophyticus and Gardnerella vaginalis, which infected the woman and likely led to her death,” McMaster University DNA specialist Hendrik Poinar said in a University of Wisconsin news release.

The genetic mapping of Staphylococcus saprophyticus makes it one of only a handful of ancient bacteria for which scientists have obtained DNA – the others being cholera, tuberculosis, leprosy and the plague, the release notes.

"The strain from Troy belongs to a lineage that is not commonly associated with human disease in the modern world," Pepperell told the U website. "We speculate that human infections in the ancient world were acquired from a pool of bacteria that moved readily between humans, livestock and the environment."

Henrike Kiesewetter, who found the skeleton, said the findings are unique. "We have almost no evidence from the archeological record of what maternal health and death was like until now," she said.

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