Scientists Sequence DNA of Bacteria Responsible for Medieval Leprosy

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For centuries, millions of Europeans suffering from leprosy were shunned by society, made to wear bells that signaled to healthy citizens they were nearby. The infectious illness, also known as Hansen’s Disease, was poorly understood, often believed to be hereditary or a punishment from God. At its height, nearly one in 30 had the disease in some regions; by the 13th century, the number of leper hospitals active in Europe hit its peak at 19,000. Then, in the 16th century, the affliction fell into decline. Soon, it had virtually disappeared from the continent.


The pathogen responsible for leprosy was discovered in 1873 in Norway, squashing previous assumptions about its cause. The earliest written mention of leprosy, one of the oldest-known pathogens to plague humans, appeared in 600 B.C. in China. Historical records show it plagued ancient Greek, Egyptian and Indian civilizations. In 2009, DNA analysis of a first-century man’s remains found in a Jerusalem tomb provided the earliest proven case of leprosy.

Now, DNA sequencing technology has provided clues about the evolution of the bacteria itself. Using well-preserved DNA samples from ancient skeletons, an international team of researchers has sequenced the genome of the pathogen Mycobacterium leprae as it existed in medieval times.

Written By: Marina Koren
continue to source article at blogs.smithsonianmag.com

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  1. After having written a term paper on leprosy in the 7th grade (I was a morbid kid) I always wondered less about the causes than about why the epidemic stopped. What kept some family members immune? If it was so virulent, like the Peste, why didn’t it wipe out MORE of the world’s inhabitants. Why do plagues stop? Is the answer only ‘better hygiene’? Or do populations evolve away from susceptibility?

    • Great question (one I’d love to know the answer to!) There is an unbelievable true story called ” The Hot Zone” by Richard Preston that chronicles the Ebola virus and several outbreaks, one that threatened Reston Virginia — 15 miles from Washington DC!!!
      One strain of the virus has a 90% fatality rate. It seems to surface and jump into the human population (from an unknown animal reservoir) and then burn through some population. Then it recedes, but researchers don’t offer much in the way of explaining why this happens, just THAT it happens. Anyway, if you’d like to grab a book that will entertain you and that you will tear through in record time, check out The Hot Zone.

      In reply to #2 by justinesaracen:

      After having written a term paper on leprosy in the 7th grade (I was a morbid kid) I always wondered less about the causes than about why the epidemic stopped. What kept some family members immune? If it was so virulent, like the Peste, why didn’t it wipe out MORE of the world’s inhabitants. Why do…

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