Written by CNN Staff Writer
For the first time, a dangerous bacterial disease with ancestors that lived up to 60,000 years ago has been identified in a human – a Neanderthal.
Scientists believe the two-year-old boy was infected with severe intestinal flu with scarring, which afflicts some people as typhoid.
Genetic analysis of a full human genome sequence indicates the disease was actually called platelet autoinflammatory disease-HAFA when prevalent hundreds of thousands of years ago, a finding that might support the idea that in some people infections rise with age.
Sequencing of a Neanderthal genome collected in South Africa, which is now being carefully analyzed by teams from several countries, revealed the simple boy was infected with the disease in the 1990s – between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago.
A picture of the type of bacteria that caused the disease in the 1990s. Credit: Y.N.I
The boy is one of about 30 Neanderthals, a human-like species that lived around Europe and Asia from roughly 380,000 to 40,000 years ago. Of the 790,000 Neanderthals found in the wild, roughly 300 were male.
Estimates suggest that around 7,000 people have died from HAD, or haemolytic uremic syndrome, in people with modern-day HABV blood diseases, such as leukaemia.
A source of blood cancers in the 2000s
The discovery of the disease in the Neanderthal suggests that the disease started to emerge in humans between 7,000 and 10,000 years ago, after its ancestor in the animal kingdom, the Asian “parasitic” Staphylococcus, came into contact with humans and began to spread around the world through various host species, including humans.
“Antibiotic drugs for those who survive HAD have long been used to treat infections caused by the bacteria that cause HAD,” said Neil Clark, a microbiologist from the University of Oxford and one of the two researchers who published the new findings in Nature.
A history of antibiotic resistance
The role of HAD in humans’ recent history is largely unknown. While HAD was a major cause of death of ancient humans, and remains a significant threat to the lives of today’s masses, the disease would not be a cause of fatal dysentery, the condition that strongly resembles HAD, according to Alastair Sutcliffe, a geneticist and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School who is not involved in the study.
He noted that the spinal system, central nervous system and haematocrit – an indicator of blood’s ability to clot – can be affected by the virus.
“It depends on whether there is a genetic predisposition and whether the infection is severe enough, but generally the mortality is very low in people without the current immunity to HAD. In fact, it’s a disease generally thought to be restricted to immune deficient patients,” Sutcliffe told CNN.
One of the new study’s authors, Soo-Ching Lee, professor of molecular microbiology at the University of Oxford, added: “The human genome sequencing we’ve already conducted and ongoing work has demonstrated that HAD is evolving globally, and is associated with emerging and re-emerging infections” such as that of the superbug MRSA and drug-resistant bugs.
“HAD is also associated with the spread of antibiotic resistance…it is unlikely that HAD will be eliminated from human populations or from modern human biology,” she said.
Nigel Lovett, Professor of Medical Genetics at the University of Birmingham who was not involved in the research, added: “Although infection rates are low…one would hope that HAD should be viewed as a serious condition, and that would possibly have practical implications for treatment, particularly in the subcontinent.
“We are a little behind our rodent cousins in tackling infectious diseases, and we need to look more closely at diseases like HAD.”