Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Brucellosis in Old Bones

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Brucellosis in Old Bones

Article excerpt

Two teams of Michigan State University (MSU) researchers--one working at a medieval burial site in Albania, the other at a DNA lab in East Lansing, Michigan--have shown how modern science can unlock the mysteries of the past.

The scientists are the first to confirm the existence of brucellosis, an infectious disease still prevalent today, in ancient skeletal remains.

The findings, which appear in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, suggest brucellosis has been endemic to Albania since at least the Middle Ages.

Although rare in the United States, brucellosis remains a major problem in the Mediterranean region and other parts of the world. Characterized by chronic respiratory illness and fever, brucellosis is acquired by eating infected meat or unpasteurized dairy products or contacting animals carrying the brucella bacteria.

Todd Fenton, associate professor of anthropology, says advanced DNA testing at MSU allowed the researchers to confirm the disease's existence in skeletons that were about 1,000 years old.

"For years, we had to hypothesize the cause of pathological conditions like this," Fenton says. "The era of DNA testing and the contributions that DNA can make to my work are really exciting."

Fenton and a group of MSU graduate students were serving as the bioarcheologists, or bone specialists, for a multinational team of archaeologists excavating sites in the ancient Albanian city of Butrint. Once a large Roman colony, in its final centuries Butrint served as an outpost of the Byzantine Empire until it was abandoned in the Middle Ages due to flooding.

Fenton and his team developed biological profiles of the human remains, which included determining sex, age, and skeletal pathologies, or health histories. …

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