The syphilis bacterium was present in South America before Columbus

The syphilis bacterium was present in South America before Columbus

As early as two thousand years ago, the Indians of what is now southern Brazil suffered from endemic syphilis ('bejal'). It is a chronic skin disease caused by a bacterium very closely related to the bacterium that causes the infamous venereal disease syphilis.

This is evident from the analysis of bacterial DNA found in the bones of four individuals buried in a so-called 'shell grave'. Two of the four had bone disorders that were associated with endemic syphilis.

Streets are winners

The discovery is an important step in the search for the origins of syphilis and related diseases, as it is the first time that syphilis has been conclusively proven to be older than 1492.

That year, when Columbus made contact with three ships between Europe and America, is considered a milestone in the history of the disease, as syphilis later spread rapidly in Europe and became a feared venereal disease.

In 1496 Al In 1484 Albrecht Dürer created a print of a syphilis victim with a text from a physician who sought the cause of a new disease in the astrological constellation – depicted in the celestial sphere.
Image courtesy of Wellcome Library, London

As early as 1496, the artist Albrecht Dürer created a vivid image of a syphilis patient. The dominant thought has always been that the disease was brought home by conquerors from the Americas. However, concerned researchers now emphasize that the discovery of a two-thousand-year-old local syphilis in South America is not indicative of the often-stated hypothesis. This hypothesis has been increasingly doubted in recent years. Research on a 2,000-year-old 'bezel' in Brazil was published on Wednesday Inside Nature.

Serious skin diseases such as the more serious sexually transmitted disease syphilis are caused by different subspecies of Bejal and Yaws (Brambosia) bacteria. Treponema pale. These subspecies differ genetically by only 0.03 percent) yet they cause distinctly different diseases.

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Only in recent decades has this genetic diversity become apparent; Earlier it was considered as one disease, which is different due to variation of circumstances. Bejal and Yves cause ulcers on the skin and mucous membranes and later bone infections. These diseases are spread through fluid from sores or by sharing eating utensils. Syphilis is transmitted through sexual contact and begins as a skin condition (usually on the genitals), but in the later stages syphilis also leads to bone infections – some years later – leading to heart problems and even severe neurological abnormalities. Diseases can easily be treated with antibiotics, although antibiotic-resistant strains have emerged in recent years.

“All variants of this are actually possible T. PaleThe bacterium was already present in the Americas before contact with Europe,” lead author Verena Schönmann from the Institute of Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich says by email. “But this only applies to the bezel variant we've found so far.”

For now, Schoonman says, the bacterium appears to have spread around the world by the time of Columbus. “We can conclude this from the large type we find in all three subspecies in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.”

Generally not accepted

Finding Bejal variation in the humid, hot south of Brazil was surprising, as it now only occurs in dry, warm regions such as the eastern Mediterranean. Obviously, different types adapt easily to new situations. His recent discovery has made Schuenmann optimistic about the origins of syphilis: “Give us a few more years, and then we can discuss the matter better.”

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Several attempts have been made to prove syphilis in cases before 1492. None of them are It was once generally accepted that there was always room for doubt about diagnosis or dating.

Based on a two-thousand-year-old genome that has now been reconstructed T. paleThe variation that causes Bejal, Schoonman's group was able to account for the variations in the most detailed family tree. The bacterial genus itself appears to have originated between 12,000 and 500 BC.



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