AUG 18, 2020 8:07 AM PDT

Syphilis was Spreading in Europe Before Columbus' Time

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease caused by a bacterium: Treponema pallidum subspecies pallidum. Its origins have been debated for many years, with some suggesting that Columbus and his crew brought the disease back to Europe from their conquests in the Americas. The disease was rampant in Europe in the late 1400s, killing as many as 5 million people.

Treponema pallidum spirochetes and associated culture debris (900x) / Credit: CDC/ Dr. John D. Schmale

Scientists have now reported in Current Biology, however, that syphilis, which is still a major problem today, was a problem in Europe before Columbus arrived in the Americas. Archaeological samples revealed the presence of treponematoses in human remains found in Finland, Estonia, and the Netherlands. Molecular and radiocarbon dating techniques were used to estimate the age of the microbial pathogens, which are thought to be at least 300 years old.

There are other Treponema pallidum subspecies that are pathogenic; skin infections called yaws and betel are also caused by these microbes. Yaws, which is a tropical disease that can spread through skin-to-skin contact, was also found in one of the human archaeological samples.

"Our data indicates that yaws was spread through all of Europe. It was not limited to the tropics, as it is today," noted study author Verena Schünemann, professor of paleogenetics at the Institute of Evolutionary Medicine of the University of Zurich (UZH).

Another microbe that's part of the basal treponemal lineage was identified that has not been found before and is no longer a factor in modern diseases.

"This unforeseen discovery is particularly exciting for us because this lineage is genetically similar to all present treponemal subspecies, but also has unique qualities that differ from them," said the first study author Kerttu Majander of UZH.

There seem to have been several subspecies of Treponema pallidum circulating in Europe between the 15th and 17th centuries, with some potentially overlapping in some areas, maybe even infecting the same people in some cases.

"Using our ancient genomes, it is now possible for the first time to apply a more reliable dating to the treponema family tree," said Schünemann.

A common ancestor probably began to give rise to all modern Treponema pallidum subspecies probably evolved about 2,500 years ago or more, according to this study. The common ancestor of venereal syphilis likely existed from the 12th to 16th centuries.

"It seems that the first known syphilis breakout cannot be solely attributed to Columbus' voyages to America. The strains of treponematoses may have co-evolved and interchanged genetic material before and during the intercontinental contacts. We may yet have to revise our theories about the origins of syphilis and other treponemal diseases," concluded Schünemann.

Syphilis can be treated, so some people might not be concerned about it. But it still infected about 115,000 Americans in 2018. It can cause severe organ damage and death if left untreated.


Sources: AAAS/Eurekalert! via University of Zurich, Science, Current Biology

About the Author
  • Experienced research scientist and technical expert with authorships on over 30 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 70 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
You May Also Like
FEB 03, 2021
Microbiology
How Changing Shape Enables Bacteria to Avoid Antibiotics
FEB 03, 2021
How Changing Shape Enables Bacteria to Avoid Antibiotics
Bacteria are survivors, and they can find ways to get around stuff we use to kill them, like disinfectants and antibioti ...
FEB 22, 2021
Microbiology
A Nasal Spray That Seems to Prevent the Spread of COVID-19
FEB 22, 2021
A Nasal Spray That Seems to Prevent the Spread of COVID-19
Reporting in Science, researchers have created an antiviral nasal spray that could help us get the COVID-19 pandemic und ...
APR 05, 2021
Microbiology
Salmonella Outbreaks Linked to Bird Feeders, Pet Turtles
APR 05, 2021
Salmonella Outbreaks Linked to Bird Feeders, Pet Turtles
Many types of bacteria often live harmlessly in and on animals and humans, but some bacteria pose a threat. Salmonella b ...
APR 09, 2021
Microbiology
A Neurological Disorder Sometimes Seen After Vaccinations
APR 09, 2021
A Neurological Disorder Sometimes Seen After Vaccinations
Functional neurological disorder (FND) is a real neuropsychiatric disorder that some people have after medical procedure ...
APR 15, 2021
Clinical & Molecular DX
A Portable Ebola Detector, 1000x More Sensitive Than Lab-Based Tests
APR 15, 2021
A Portable Ebola Detector, 1000x More Sensitive Than Lab-Based Tests
Duke University scientists have created a highly sensitive Ebola virus portable diagnostic device, 1000 times more sensi ...
APR 19, 2021
Microbiology
Gas-Generating Microbes Highlight the Diet - Microbiome Link
APR 19, 2021
Gas-Generating Microbes Highlight the Diet - Microbiome Link
Researchers are learning more about how different species of bacteria in the human gut microbiome play a role in metabol ...
Loading Comments...