Semi-Precious Pathogens

Oct. 17, 2014

By Medical Discovery News

Bug in amber

Some diseases are older than others. AIDS, for instance, is a recent phenomenon, while malaria has plagued humans for millennia. Recently, scientists examining ticks fossilized in amber found they were infected with bacteria similar to those that cause Lyme disease, a spirochete named Borrelia burgdorferi. Lyme disease is a bacterial infection caused by the bite of an infected tick. The discovery of an ancient Borrelia-like bacterium, now named Palaeoborrelia dominicana, shows that tick-borne diseases have been around for millions of years.

Lyme disease was identified in the early 1970s when mysterious cases of rheumatoid arthritis struck children in Lyme, Conn., and two other nearby towns. The first symptom is a rash called erythema migrans, which begins with a small red spot where the tick bite occurred. Over the next few days or weeks, the rash gets larger, forming a circular or oval red rash much like a bull’s eye. This rash can stay small or can cover the entire back. But not everyone with Lyme disease gets this rash, and the other symptoms, including fever, headaches, stiff neck, body aches, and fatigue, are common to many other ailments. Some people develop symptoms of arthritis, nervous system problems, or even cardiac issues.

Lyme disease can be difficult to diagnose. Sometimes, people write off their initial symptoms as the flu or another common illness, and experience symptoms for months or even years before finding the true cause. To diagnose Lyme disease, doctors measure the levels of antibodies the body produces in response to Borrelia infection. Lyme patients are treated with antibiotics, but if the bacteria have been in the body for a long period of time, it can take a long time to cure. The sooner diagnosis and treatment begin, the more quickly and completely patients will recover. Even after treatment for Lyme disease, people can still experience muscle or joint aches and nervous system symptoms.

Scientists from Oregon State University have studied 15- to 20-million-year-old amber found in the Dominican Republic. Despite existing for millions of years, bacteria are rarely found in fossils. However, free-flowing tree resin traps and preserves material such as seeds, leaves, feathers, and insects in great detail. Amber is then formed from the fossilization of the resin over millions of years as it turns into a semi-precious stone. This is the oldest fossil evidence of ticks containing such bacteria.

Four ticks from the Dominican amber were examined and found to have large populations of spirochetes that resemble the Borrelia bacteria, such as those that cause Lyme disease today. The oldest reported case of Lyme disease was Oetzi, a well-preserved natural mummy who lived 5,000 years ago and was discovered by hikers in the Alps. In other studies, fossils have revealed bacteria such as Rickettsia, which cause modern diseases like Spotted Fevers and Typhus, found in ticks from about 100 million years ago. Evidence suggests that even dinosaurs may have been infected with Rickettsia, showing these microbes likely infected other creatures before humans were added to the mix. Millions of years of co-evolution resulted in highly adapted pathogens that scientists and physicians still struggle to understand and treat.

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A Medical Look at the Iceman Ötzi

By Medical Discovery News

June 16, 2012

Photo © South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology

Much of what scientists know about Neolithic man comes from Ötzi, whose body was preserved by ice in the Eastern Alps and discovered by German hikers in 1991. Since then, scientists have continued to study the intact ice mummy to learn about his health, his identity and how he died.

Though the iceman died 5,300 years ago, Ötzi’s body was so well preserved that scientists were recently able to extract uncontaminated DNA and sequence his genome. They discovered he suffered some of the same diseases people face today. At 46 years old, considered elderly for his time, Ötzi was predisposed for cardiovascular disease. He also had brown eyes, blood type O, lactose intolerance, and it turns out he had Lyme disease, making him the world’s first documented case.

Tissue from his hipbone revealed the presence of the bacterial pathogen that causes Lyme disease. Today, it’s among the most rapidly emerging infectious diseases in North America with nearly 30,000 confirmed cases in the U.S. in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control.  A bite from a deer tick or backlegged tick carrying Lyme disease can cause a bull’s eye rash around the bite site, along with fatigue, and aches and pains. The symptoms disappear but then can return weeks or years later with more severe problems such as paralysis, heart palpitations, and even memory loss and confusion.

Today, the infection can be treated with antibiotics and rarely will someone continue to have symptoms. But 5,300 years ago, antibiotics were unknown and Ötzi’s infection may have progressed and eventually disabled or killed him. But the iceman did not die from Lyme disease.

Ötzi may have been shot by an arrow and bled to death within minutes. He also had signs of defensive wounds to his hands and arms, including bruises and abrasions that make scientists think he had been involved in hand-to-hand combat. More recently, researchers were able to conclude he had a skull fracture that led to major bleeding in the back of the brain. This further suggests he was attacked or fell, which adds to mounting evidence Ötzi died during a fight.

The new DNA analysis also allows researchers to trace his ancestors, who came from the east and spread over Europe. Over time, following generations were genetically homogenized, so that his lineage can now only be traced to remote areas, such as Sardinia and Corsica.

At 5 feet, 2 inches tall, the small iceman will continue to give historians and scientists a better picture of how prehistoric people lived in this time between 3350 and 3100 B.C. To gain some perspective on how long ago this was, Ötzi had already been dead for 600 years when King Cheops of Egypt built his pyramids, and in England, Stonehenge would not be built for several hundred more years.

Ötzi is currently on display at the South Tyrol Museum of Archeology in South Tyrol, Italy. Visitors can see his body, kept frozen around 21 F, through a small window, and see a new 3-D life-sized model of how he would have appeared just before he died.

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