Sardinian roots, not healthy: human genome decoded from Pompeii

In 79 AD, an eruption from Mount Vesuvius buried the city of Pompeii under a layer of ash.

Sardinian roots, not healthy: human genome decoded from Pompeii

In 79 AD, an eruption from Mount Vesuvius buried the city of Pompeii under a layer of ash. Now researchers are decoding the genome of a former Pompeian for the first time - and are learning a lot of interesting details about the man who died almost 200 years ago.

Italian scientists have for the first time sequenced large parts of the genome of a person who died in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Pompeii almost 2000 years ago. They found out that the man possibly came from Sardinia and that his ancestors came to Europe via what is now Iran and Anatolia. He also very likely suffered from tuberculosis of the spine, as the group led by Gabriele Scorrano from the University of Tor Vergata in Rome writes in the journal "Scientific Reports".

In the year 79 there were several violent eruptions of the volcano Vesuvius, located south-east of Naples. During this time, the Roman cities of Herculaneum, Stabiae, Oplontis and Pompeii were covered by ash and other volcanic materials. In Pompeii, around 2,000 people who had not yet fled the city died from a pyroclastic flow at several 100 degrees Celsius - a mixture of hot ash, gases and pieces of rock.

Normally, high heat destroys bone structures and thus also the genetic material, DNA. 'On the other hand, it's also possible that the pyroclastic materials covering the remains may have shielded them from environmental factors such as atmospheric oxygen, which degrades DNA,' the researchers write.

In the petrous bone of a dead man - named Individual A - Scorrano and colleagues found well-preserved DNA. The petrous bone is part of the skull and is one of the hardest bones in the human body. The DNA was enough to reconstruct 41 percent of the genome of the 35 to 40-year-old man. Both the genome of the mitochondria - the cell power plants - inherited via the mother's line and the Y chromosome inherited from the father's side showed some characteristics that are typically found in inhabitants of the island of Sardinia.

Comparisons of the reconstructed genome with genomes in various gene databases revealed that the man carried 30.5 percent genes from the Iranian Neolithic period and 51.6 percent genes from the Anatolian Neolithic period. In addition, 4.4 percent came from western hunter-gatherers and 13.5 percent from the Yamnaya culture, which spread from the region north of the Black Sea to far into Europe in the Bronze Age.

The research team did not limit themselves to genetic analyses, but also examined anatomical properties of the Pompeian. The scientists discovered changes in two lumbar vertebrae that indicated tuberculosis of the spine. They then examined the genome for the pathogen Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Although they found too little genetic material to detect exactly this species, it was sufficient for the genus Mycobacterium. The group concludes that there is a high probability that the man had tuberculosis of the spine.

"The genome-wide analyzes indicate that Pompeian individual A is genetically close to extant Mediterranean peoples, mainly Central Italians and Sardinians," the researchers write. They also examined an individual B, a woman in her 50s who was found next to the man. In her case, however, the yield of genetic material was too low for further analysis.

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