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One of the Earliest Case of Tuberculosis Identified in 7,000-year-old Skeleton

Nov 02, 2013 07:42 PM EDT

Tuberculosis has threatened the human race, and specifically the European continent, for at least 7,000 years, a new study examining ancient skeletons found.

Researcher Muriel Masson and her colleagues at the University of Szeged looked at 71 human skeletons from a 7,000-year-old grave site located in the south of Hungary. In doing so, they uncovered a variety of signs of infections and metabolic diseases, including evidence of Hypertrophic Pulmonary Osteopathy (HPO).

Characterized by symmetrical new bone formations on the long bones, HPO may have been caused by tuberculosis thousands of years ago -- a hypothesis based on a series of archaeological discoveries. However, because evidence of HPO is rare, researchers have struggled to verify the hypothesis.

In the new study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, the researchers used ancient DNA and lipids from the bones of one skeleton to test the concept. Sure enough, both confirmed the presence of the bacterial complex associated with tuberculosis.

As one of the earliest known cases of HPO and tuberculosis to date, the finding helps offer new understanding of the prehistoric European community.

"This is a crucial find from a fantastic site. It is not only the earliest occurrence of fully-developed HPO on an adult skeleton to date, but also clearly establishes the presence of [tuberculosis] in Europe 7000 years ago," Masson said.

Tuberculosis is an infectious disease caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis, and while it usually affects the lungs, it can affect other parts of the body such as the brain, spin and kidneys as well. Today, tuberculosis is second only to HIV/AIDS as the greatest global killer due to a single infectious agent, the World Health Organization reports. In 2012, 8.6 million contracted the disease and 1.3 million died from it.

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