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Mummy Sequencing

Metagenomic sequencing of a mummy found in a mass burial site in Hungaria has yielded evidence of Mycobacterium tuberculosis from 215 years ago, according to an article in The New England Journal of Medicine.

The discovery was made after investigators led by the University of Warwick used metagenomic sequencing to study tissues from the body of a 28 year-old woman who was buried in a crypt with 242 other individuals in Vác, Hungary.

Many of the bodies found in the crypt, which was discovered in 1994, were naturally mummified, including the remains of Terezia Hausmann, from whom the tissues were extracted.

The investigators used the Illumina MiSeq to obtain 5.5 million paired-end reads, and found that around 8 percent of those aligned against the M. tuberculosis strain J37Rv. They say they also found evidence that the woman had a mixed infection, as another M. tuberculosis genotype was discovered in the tissue.

The Warwick team, led by Mark Pallen, a professor of Microbial Genomics, worked with partners at University College London and collaborators in Birmingham and Budapest.

This effort shows the capabilities of metagenomics sequencing to make discoveries from historical specimens, they say.

“It was fascinating to see the similarities between the TB genome sequences we recovered and the genome of a recent outbreak strain in Germany. It shows once more that using metagenomics can be remarkably effective in tracking the evolution and spread of microbes without the need for culture—in this case, metagenomes revealed that some strain lineages have been circulating in Europe for more than two centuries," Pallen says.

He notes that most attempts to recover DNA sequences from historical and ancient samples have been plagued by contamination problems, largely because they require amplification in the lab, but metagenomics offers "a simple but highly informative, assumption-free, one-size-fits-all approach that works in a variety of contexts.

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