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Gallstone from mummified 16th Century Italian Prince provides vital clues to battle superbug

“We were able to identify what was an opportunistic pathogen."

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The mummified Prince. He was 48 when he died in 1586. (University of Pisa via SWNS)

By Stephen Beech via SWNS

A gallstone taken from the mummified body of a 16th Century Italian Prince has provided vital clues in the battle against a notorious superbug.

The first ancient genome of E. coli - responsible for thousands of deaths around the world each year - has been reconstructed by an international team of scientists using fragments from the preserved remains of Neapolitan nobleman Giovani d’Avalos.

The Prince, who was 48 when he died in 1586, is thought to have suffered from chronic inflammation of the gallbladder due to gallstones which have been linked to E. coli.

The superbug is a major public health concern.

It is known as acommensal, a bacteria that resides within us and can act as an opportunistic pathogen infecting its host during periods of stress, underlying disease or immunodeficiency.

However, the research team explained that its full evolutionary history remains a mystery, including when it acquired antibiotic resistance.

Unlike well-documented pandemics such as the Black Death, which lingered for centuries and killed up to 200 million people worldwide, there are no historical records of deaths caused by commensals such as E. coli despite its impact on human health.

Researchers reconstruct the genome of E. coli, using fragments from the gallstone of a mummified prince from the 16th century.
(University of Pisa via SWNS)

Research leader Professor Hendrik Poinar said: “A strict focus on pandemic-causing pathogens as the sole narrative of mass mortality in our past misses the large burden that stems from opportunistic commensals driven by the stress of lives lived."

Evolutionary geneticist Prof Poinar, of Canada's McMaster University who led the research, said: "Modern E. coli is commonly found in the intestines of healthy people and animals.

"While most forms are harmless, some strains are responsible for serious, sometimes fatal food poisoning outbreaks and bloodstream infections. The hardy and adaptable bacterium are recognized as especially resistant to treatment."

He explained that having the genome of a 400-year-old ancestor to the modern bacterium provides researchers a "point of comparison" for studying how it has evolved and adapted since that time.

The mummified remains used in the new study come from a group of Italian nobles whose well-preserved bodies were recovered from the Abbey of Saint Domenico Maggiore in Naples in 1983.

The research team conducted a detailed analysis of one of the individuals, d’Avalos. a Neapolitan noble from the Renaissance period.

Study lead author George Long, a graduate student of bioinformatics at McMaster, said: “When we were examining these remains, there was no evidence to say this man had E. coli.

"Unlike an infection like smallpox, there are no physiological indicators. No one knew what it was."

He explained that the technological feat is particularly remarkable because E. coli is both "complex and ubiquitous" - living not only in the soil but also in our own microbiomes.

Researchers had to meticulously isolate fragments of the target bacterium, which had been degraded by environmental contamination from several sources. They used the recovered material to reconstruct the genome.

George Long is the co-lead author of the study and a graduate student of bioinformatics in the Department of Anthropology.
(McMaster University via SWNS)

Professor Erick Denamur, the leader of the French section of the research team, said: "It was so stirring to be able to type this ancient E. coli and find that while unique it fell within a phylogenetic lineage characteristic of human commensals that are today still causing gallstones."

Mr. Long added: “We were able to identify what was an opportunistic pathogen, dig down to the functions of the genome, and provide guidelines to aid researchers who may be exploring other, hidden pathogens."

The findings were published online in the journal Communications Biology.

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