Genome-Wide Comparison of Medieval and Modern Mycobacterium leprae

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Science  12 Jul 2013:
Vol. 341, Issue 6142, pp. 179-183
DOI: 10.1126/science.1238286

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Leprosy: Ancient and Modern

In medieval Europe, leprosy was greatly feared: Sufferers had to wear bells and were shunned and kept isolated from society. Although leprosy largely disappeared from Europe in the 16th century, elsewhere in the world almost a quarter of a million cases are still reported annually, despite the availability of effective drugs. Schuenemann et al. (p. 179, published online 13 June; see the 14 June News story by Gibbons, p. 1278) probed the origins of leprosy bacilli by using a genomic capture-based approach on DNA obtained from skeletal remains from the 10th to 14th centuries. Because the unique mycolic acids of this mycobacterium protect its DNA, for one Danish sample over 100-fold, coverage of the genome was possible. Sequencing suggests a link between the middle-eastern and medieval European strains, which falls in line with social historical expectations that the returning expeditionary forces of antiquity originally spread the pathogen. Subsequently, Europeans took the bacterium westward to the Americas. Overall, ancient and modern strains remain remarkably similar, with no apparent loss of virulence genes, indicating it was most probably improvements in social conditions that led to leprosy's demise in Europe.


Leprosy was endemic in Europe until the Middle Ages. Using DNA array capture, we have obtained genome sequences of Mycobacterium leprae from skeletons of five medieval leprosy cases from the United Kingdom, Sweden, and Denmark. In one case, the DNA was so well preserved that full de novo assembly of the ancient bacterial genome could be achieved through shotgun sequencing alone. The ancient M. leprae sequences were compared with those of 11 modern strains, representing diverse genotypes and geographic origins. The comparisons revealed remarkable genomic conservation during the past 1000 years, a European origin for leprosy in the Americas, and the presence of an M. leprae genotype in medieval Europe now commonly associated with the Middle East. The exceptional preservation of M. leprae biomarkers, both DNA and mycolic acids, in ancient skeletons has major implications for palaeomicrobiology and human pathogen evolution.

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