Ancient Peruvian Mummy Surprises Researchers With Antibiotic-Resistant Genes

November 14, 2015 Updated: November 15, 2015
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A mummy uncovered at the ancient site of Cusco in Peru has surprised scientists with what was contained in its gut. Genes linked to antibiotic resistance have been found in the Pre-Columbian mummy’s colon. These gene mutations occurred naturally, long before the introduction of modern medical antibiotics.

An international team of scientists studied the 11th-century mummy, which was discovered in the ancient Inca capital of Cusco. Their research was directed at analyzing the microbiome of the remains, which were naturally preserved in the cool, arid climate of the Andes Mountains, as reported by Discovery News.

The mummy, identified as a woman who was between 18 and 23 years old at the time of her death, had been brought to Italy in the late 19th century, where it was donated to a museum and housed with 11 other mummies.

An autopsy revealed the young woman’s preserved heart, esophagus, and colon were enlarged, indicating she may have suffered from chronic Chagas disease, a dangerous parasite spread through bloodsucking insects called Triatominae, or “kissing bugs.” This parasite still plagues 6 million to 7 million people worldwide today.

By sampling and identifying DNA from the mummy’s colon and feces, it was found that Chagas disease likely killed her, although she also suffered advanced heart disease, megacolon, and megaesophagus. Scientists believe she was likely treated with early drugs, such as coca leaves. Upcoming results of toxicology tests on a braid of her hair may reveal more about what medicines or psychoactive drugs she might have taken.

Further analysis revealed another bacterial disease—Clostridium difficile (the origin of the C. difficile infection which causes diarrhea and colitis), and also some types of human papilloma virus (HPV).

Many of the antibiotic-resistant genes found in the ancient woman’s remains would have made treatment with modern antibiotics ineffective. These gene mutations are thought to have “occurred naturally in 1,000-year-old bacteria and are not necessarily linked to the overuse of antibiotics.” The findings have recently been published in the science journal PLOS ONE.

Antibiotic resistance today is a great concern.

Antibiotic resistance today is a great concern. Researchers are sounding alarms for the need to reduce antibiotic use, for we soon may face a world in which patients are resistant to the medicines. The concern was described as a “silent tsunami facing modern medicine” by The Guardian this year.

While experts call for reduced antibiotic use, they’re also looking for sources of new antibiotics to which we have not yet developed resistances. It is hoped that identification of antibiotic resistance genes in ancient humans, such as was found in the 11th-century Peruvian mummy, may help in this search.

Republished with permission. Read the original at Ancient Origins.