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Scientists sequence genome of syphilis from colonial-era Mexico

June 22 (UPI) — Scientists have successfully sequenced the genome of syphilis from colonial-era Mexico.

The bacterium Treponema pallidum features two subspecies, one that causes syphilis and a second that causes yaws. Evidence of these two diseases are indistinguishable when examining skeletal remains.

By extracting genetic material from ancient human remains, researchers were able to confirm the presence of the subspecies responsible for the sexually transmitted disease.

Researchers hope to use the same methodology to differentiate between the genetic evidence of the two diseases in future surveys.

Scientists continue to debate whether a 15th century European outbreak of syphilis was spread by Europeans who brought the disease back from the New World, or whether the disease was already widespread among human population prior to the outbreak.

The new genetic analysis could help scientists better understand the disease’s evolutionary origins.

“Now, with the methods used here, it’s possible to go farther back in time and look at Pre-Columbian syphilis and see where it originated,” lead researcher Verena Schuenemann, a scientist at the University of Zurich, told National Geographic.

Although the latest findings, published this week in the journal PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases, may inspire future breakthroughs, they failed to offer immediate clarity on the subject of the disease’s origins.

“Previous research that found the presence of T. pallidum ssp. pertenue in old world monkeys, and our finding that two T. pallidum subspecies likely caused similar skeletal manifestations in the past, may suggest a more complex evolutionary history of T. pallidum than previously assumed,” Alexander Herbig, researcher with the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, said in a news release.

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