Tracking a Killer: Using Ancient DNA to Understand The Evolutionary History of Tuberculosis

Anne C. Stone, Regents’ Professor, School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Arizona State University

Abstract: Tuberculosis (TB) has affected humans, as well as other animals, for millennia. Here, I will discuss how ancient DNA allows us to examine the history of Mycobacterium tuberculosis and related strains in the M. tuberculosis complex (MTBC) which cause the disease. In particular, I will focus on patterns of pathogen exchange before and after the “Age of Exploration/Colonization” and discuss ways that TB may have adapted to humans and other animals. We initially analyzed MTBC genomes from three 1000-year old skeletal TB cases from coastal Peru and found that they are closely related to strains in sea mammals (specifically Southern Hemisphere pinnipeds). Our subsequent research shows that these pinniped-derived MTBC strains spread to inland parts of South America as well as North America likely by human-to-human transmission and suggests multiple jumps from pinnipeds. After contact, colonists introduced European TB strains, replacing pre-contact strains but the timing and extent of this is poorly known. Our data suggest that these post-contact strain distributions reflect the introduction of strains commonly circulating in the source areas of colonists. 

Bio: Anne Stone is a Regents Professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at the Arizona State University. Her specialization and main area of interest is anthropological genetics. Currently, her research focuses on population history and understanding how humans and the great apes have adapted to their environments, including their disease and dietary environments. This has three main strands: (a) population history, particularly in the Americas (b) the evolutionary history of the Great Apes, and (c) understanding the co-evolutionary history of mycobacteria (specifically Mycobacterium tuberculosis and M. leprae, the causative agents of tuberculosis and leprosy, respectively) with human and non-human primates. She has been a Fulbright Fellow (1992-93) and a Kavli Scholar (2007), and, in 2011, she was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 2016, she was elected as a member of the Naitonal Academy of Sciences. She has served on the editorial boards of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, the Journal of Human Evolution, Evolution, Medicine, & Public Health, and Molecular Biology and Evolution. She is currently a member of the editorial board of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, series B.

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