News Release

Seals introduced tuberculosis to the New World

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute

Scientists from the University of Tübingen, Arizona State University, the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute (Swiss TPH) isolated Mycobacterium pinnipedii from skeletons found in Peru which are at least 1000 years old. The pathogen is a relative of the TB bacterium that affects seals but only occasionally causes disease in humans today. These researchers assume that seals carried the pathogens from Africa to the Peruvian coast. "The link to sea lions was unexpected" comments Sebastien Gagneux, from the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute. "Although this strain can make people ill, it is extremely rare and certainly not a common form of a tuberculosis infection in humans today".

A new chapter in the history of tuberculosis in Latin America

The results shed new light on the history of tuberculosis in the Americas. It has long been assumed that humans introduced the disease to the 'New World' in the aftermath of colonization during the 15th century. «However, there were signs that the disease existed previous to the discovery of the New World. But it is the first time now that the pathogen of pre-Colombian tuberculosis could be identified», says Sebastien Gagneux from Swiss TPH.

New impulses for vaccine development

Tuberculosis remains a global threat. New drugs and vaccines are urgently needed to fight this poverty-related disease. Multi-drug resistance against first-line treatments is a growing threat in many countries. Therefore, the exploration of the evolutionary patterns of TB bacteria and their strategies to adapt to the human environment may help predict future patterns of the disease. This may also contribute to future drug discoveries and to the design of improved strategies for disease control.



Pre-Columbian Mycobacterial Genomes Reveal Seals as a Source of New World Human Tuberculosis

Kirsten I. Bos, Kelly M. Harkins, Alexander Herbig, Mireia Coscolla, Nico Weber, Iñaki Comas, Stephen A. Forrest, Josephine M. Bryant, Simon R. Harris, Verena J. Schuenemann, Tessa J. Campbell, Kerrtu Majander, Alicia K. Wilbur, Ricardo A. Guichon, Dawnie L. Wolfe Steadman, Della Collins Cook, Stefan Niemann, Marcel A. Behr, Martin Zumarraga, Ricardo Bastida, Daniel Huson, Kay Nieselt, Douglas Young, Julian Parkhill, Jane E. Buikstra, Sebastien Gagneux, Anne C. Stone, and Johannes Krause


Sebastien Gagneux, Schweizerisches Tropen- und Public Health-Institut (Swiss TPH)

About the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute (Swiss TPH)

The Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute (Swiss TPH) is one of Switzerland's leading public and global health institutions. Associated with the University of Basel, the Institute combines research, teaching and service provision at local, national and international level. The Swiss TPH is a public sector organisation and receives around 17% of its budget of approximately 80 million francs from core contributions from the cantons of Basel-Stadt and Basel-Landschaft (10%) and from the federal government (8%). The remainder (82%) is acquired by competing for funds. The Institute has more than 600 employees working in 20 countries. Professor Marcel Tanner is head of the Institute.

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