An ancient infection eats the bones. Scientists have discovered a thousand-year-old pathogen lurking in us
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Researchers have discovered that there is an ancient lineage of tuberculosis that attacks our bones and destroys them from the inside.
Destruction of the spine caused by tuberculosis was previously found in Egyptian mummies about 9,000 years old. Scientists believed that in the modern world there are only about 2% of cases of skeletal tuberculosis or Pott's disease. However, a new study shows that the situation is more complicated, writes Science Alert.
It all started in the mid-2000s during the outbreak of tuberculosis in North Carolina. At the epicenter of the infection was a man who is believed to have contracted tuberculosis in Vietnam. After the disease spread among his colleagues – out of 6 people in whom the infection went beyond the lungs, in two it reached the bones.
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According to Jameson Stout, an infectious disease specialist at Duke University, this does not at all correspond to the theory of 2% – it is much more. The scientist puzzled for a long time, because the likelihood that this could happen by accident was astronomical. A chance meeting with Duke University molecular geneticist David Tobin changed everything.
It is known that the bacteria that causes tuberculosis (Mycobacterium tuberculosis) travel throughout our bodies, invading immune cells that engulf the pathogens. Stout and Tobin decided to study some of the samples from the 2000s bizarre TB outbreak to understand what makes certain types of TB more mobile within our body.
In the study, the scientists compared the sequence of the strain that caused the North Carolina outbreak with 225 other strains of tuberculosis. It turned out that the outbreak in the 2000s was caused by a first-line strain, which is in fact one of the earliest forms of tuberculosis.
Scientists found that the gene encoding the EsxM protein was completely present in the outbreak strain in South Carolina, however, it was truncated in the more “modern” lineage 2-4 strains.
An earlier study found that first-line TB is associated with a higher rate of pathogen attacking the skeleton than any other lineage TB. During the research, scientists infected zebrafish with two strains of tuberculosis – a full-sized variant of EsxM and a truncated version. It turned out that full-sized macrophages were more mobile and moved faster to the caudal fin than truncated ones.
Afterward, the researchers sequenced more than 3 thousand different strains of tuberculosis and found that all modern variants have the so-called “silent” EsxM gene. The researchers suggest that this mutation limited the movement of the virus inside the human body, however, gave it a greater concentrated ability to spread through the air through breathing.