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Ancient Genome Sequence Provides Look at Ancestry for Individual Who Perished at Pompeii

Pompeii corpses

NEW YORK – With newly generated genetic data from remains found at Pompeii, a team from Italy, Denmark, Brazil, and the US has found clues to the population found in the ancient southern Italian city, which was engulfed by a Mount Vesuvius volcanic eruption more than 1,900 years ago.

The results appeared in Scientific Reports on Thursday.

"Before our work, only small fragments of DNA have been recovered from bones, which yielded only partial information," senior and co-corresponding author Fabio Macciardi, a molecular psychiatry researcher at the University of California at Irvine, said in an email. "We have been able to get a complete genome from at least one young man, because his skull … was encapsulated into pumices which helped to preserve the integrity of the DNA."

Using DNA isolated from the individual's petrous bone, the researchers generated sequences that were used to put together a whole-genome assembly with 0.4-fold coverage, on average, across the genome. The male was estimated to be roughly 35 to 40 years old when he died and was found in the Casa del Fabbro, or "House of the Craftsman" — one of the sites preserved from the A.D. 79 eruption.

The DNA sequence was subsequently analyzed alongside sequences for 471 individuals from contemporary populations in West Eurasia, as well as published genetic sequences from ancient individuals reaching back to the Upper Paleolithic to Medieval period. Along with ancestry that resembled other ancient Romans or Italians, for example, the team saw signs that the ancient male Pompeiian had ancestry that resembled populations in the Mediterranean.

The individual carried ancestry consistent with Italian Peninsula populations related to a group from Neolithic Anatolia, though he also carried mitochondrial and Y sequences that were less common on the Italian Peninsula, more closely corresponding to mitochondrial haplogroups and Y chromosome lineages commonly linked to Sardinia.

"Both Y-chromosome and mtDNA lineages from the Pompeian individual were absent among published individuals in Roman Imperial age in Italy, suggesting a high diversity during that period across the Italian Peninsula," the authors noted.

By examining the individual's bones, meanwhile, the researchers saw signs that he had suffered from a condition known as Pott's disease that involves Mycobacterium tuberculosis infections that affect the spinal bone. When they searched for sequences stemming from the M. tuberculosis species complex with metagenomic methods, they found just over 400 reads that appeared to match the pathogen, though many more reads from the broader Mycobacterium genus turned up.

"Our initial findings provide a foundation to promote an intensive and extensive paleogenetic analysis in order to reconstruct the genetic history of [the] population from Pompeii, a unique archaeological site," the authors suggested. "Supported by the enormous amount of archaeological information that has been collected in the past century for the city of Pompeii, their paleogenetic analyses will help us to reconstruct the lifestyle of this fascinating population of the Imperial Roman period."

Though the team attempted to profile ancient DNA from a second, female individual found in the Casa del Fabbro, sequences generated from that sample produced very low genome-wide coverage, on the order of 0.0013-fold.

"As far as we know, the Archeological Park is interested to move forward with sequencing other genomes and with more paleogenetic studies," Macciardi said, noting that Italian labs are in the process of competing for funding allocated for completing such efforts.