TAU Isolates World's Oldest Case of Tuberculosis

Findings have implications in understanding how human diseases mutate and spread

A typical burial at Atlit Yam. The deceased was buried in a
crouched position.

A Tel Aviv University researcher has helped isolate an ancient strain of tuberculosis (TB) from submerged skeletons found at an underwater archeological site off the coast of Haifa, Israel. After carbon dating and genetic testing, Prof. Israel Hershkovitz from the Department of Anatomy and Anthropology, Sackler Medical School, Tel Aviv University dated it as the earliest known case of human TB.

Scientists previously believed that human TB had evolved from a bovine strain after the domestication of animals. This new finding shows that the theoretical transmission of TB being from cows to humans is unlikely. It also gives new insight into how modern-day diseases evolve and mutate.

A water well at Atlit Yam.

“Not only that, but we were able to show that the DNA of the strain of TB in these skeletons had lost a particular piece of DNA which is characteristic of a common family of strains present in the world today,” says Prof. Hershkovitz.  “This fact gives us a much better idea of the rate of change of the bacterium over time, and indicates an extremely long association with humans.”

The sample collected came from 9,000-year-old mother and child skeletons, who lived in a time after animals had been domesticated. The bones and TB sample is dated from the "Pre-Pottery Neolithic" period, 3,000 years earlier than other reports.

Prof. Israel Hershkovitz

In the journal PLoS ONE, the team describes how they isolated the tuberculosis and analyzed bones from the archeological site Atlit-Yam, now submerged off the coast of Haifa.

A multidisciplinary team including UK scientists carried out the study, and Tel Aviv University contributed its expertise in the areas of archaeology, palaeopathology and molecular work.

To learn more about the discovery, read the Reuters news story here.

"The Temple," a semicircular construction at the center of the archaeological site.


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